Sunday, August 24, 2014

Racism certainly exists, but there is no “white America” and there is no “black America.”

Although I usually agree with Derrick Z. Jackson’s piercing op-eds in the Boston Globe, I objected when he turned the police state in Ferguson, Missouri into an indictment against “white America” (“White America’s racial blinders,” Boston Globe, August 20, 2014.) Today the Globe published my response, reproduced below, with the Globe's title. It also publish another letter that I thought was particularly insightful, “How have we come to accept shoot-to-kill approach as normal?” by Paul Czerny (link).

WHILE I share Derrick Z. Jackson’s outrage about the shooting of black men by white police officers, I disagree with his accusation against “white America” (“White America’s racial blinders”). Referring to “white America” lumps all whites together into one stereotype.
He reports, for example, that 37 percent of white respondents agreed that the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., raises important issues about race, while 80 percent — and only 80 percent — of blacks agreed that this was so.
Those in the significant minority of that 37 percent should not be disregarded and treated as though they are the same as the remaining 63 percent.
Just as I do not want to be lumped together with all “African-Americans” as though we all think alike, I will not lump together all whites as though they all think alike. They clearly do not.
There is no “white America” and there is no “black America.”
But there is racism.

Jamaica Plain

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Human Rights and Culture Review*: Three Key Books on Democracy

The Founders would not recognize American society today. While some of them would applaud where we are today, others would be appalled and join the Republican Tea Party.

In 1790, a year after the U.S. Constitution became effective, slave holding was legal in all states including northern ones (except Vermont, which made slave holding illegal in 1777); women and free blacks could not vote; white men who did not own property could not vote; those accused of non-federal crimes had no right to a lawyer; and states were not bound by the Bill of Rights. 

There was no Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. There were no national laws against discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, religion or nationality. There were no labor unions or minimum wage laws. Gay marriage would have been an absurd idea. 

In the 224 years since then, our democracy has grown considerably and come closer to embracing the idea of human equality.

This process of growing could end and even retreat. Many issues still face us, including, among many other things, extreme poverty and hunger, loss of privacy, contraction of women’s rights, the distortion of electoral politics due to lack of reform of campaign financing, and the increasing power of the executive branch to define our “enemies,” domestic and foreign, and confine, torture or assassinate them.

 Lack of awareness of what democracy means and complacency are the primary enemies of preserving democracy and furthering its growth. (I have explained these dangers and the mentality behind them in my book, HowWe Are Our Enemy—And How to Stop: Our Unfinished Task of Fulfilling the Valuesof Democracy.)

I have picked three books that provide critical parts of the basic understanding that we all need to understand the human rights that are the foundation of democracy. By no means are these the only books worth reading on the subject. There are too many to name. But I have picked these three books, because they (1) elucidate essential ingredients of a democratic society, (2) are quite interesting, enjoyable and even fascinating to read, and (3) will whet our appetite for more reading, thinking and discussion about what kind of society we want to live in and how to attain it. Those who have already read them can encourage others to do so too and add their favorites to their own lists.

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, Stateand the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry

This book helps us to understand why and how democratic ideas took hold in America.

The Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts from England in the early seventeenth century to escape from oppression were not seeking democracy. Instead, they replicated the very oppression from which they were escaping. Their vision of a perfect community required conformity not only of actions but also of thought. Anyone who insisted on not agreeing with them could be banished or executed, and many were. 

Roger Williams, banished from Massachusetts in 1635, escaped on foot through a life-threatening blizzard with the critical help of Native Americans, to a place he called Providence in an area that was to become a part of Rhode Island. Providence became a refuge for others banished or fleeing from nearby intolerant settlements. There, unlike any place known then to England or Europe, he guided this new community to accept total freedom of conscience, full separation of church and state, and the radical idea that the power of government comes not from some higher divine authority but from the people treated as equals. These concepts were not widely accepted in America until a century and a half later. 

This book tells the fascinating story of America’s early beginnings in exquisite and often shocking detail, giving full credit to concepts of liberty and science that were nascent in England during Williams’ youth.

Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, by Anthony Lewis
The title speaks for itself. Democracy requires the freedom to think freely and speak freely. In clear and easy to read language, this book describes the struggles this freedom has had to survive and grow. We have come a long way since the Puritans’ arrival on these shores. Yet, this freedom is still not safely secured.

Gideon’s Trumpet, by Anthony Lewis

It is easy to overlook the importance of the right of a defendant to have an attorney in a criminal trial when the defendant cannot afford to pay for one. Without legal assistance, people in poor communities were defenseless against local police and prosecutors and often subject to their racial and ethnic prejudices. Clarence Earl Gideon, white, poor and poorly educated, led the way to changing the law of the United States--remarkably, not until 1963--to require provision of legal counsel to indigent defendants. 

That an ordinary and impoverished citizen could change the law of the nation is itself a fascinating story. While this book focuses on Mr. Gideon’s mission, it also provides an extensive and clearly stated education on constitutional law and the critical role of the judiciary.

If you read (or have read) these three books, you will know more about human rights and American democracy than you were taught in college or even in law school.


* Human Rights and Culture Review is a new series on this blog, starting today. The previous series on Corporations (which has not closed) can be located on the “Contents by Topic” page of this blog.