Thursday, July 5, 2018

Another check-in on family plan

As of today, a hateful reality-show D-lister has been president of the United States for 1 year, 5 months, and 15 days. How are we doing with our family plan?

One part of the plan was about emotions vs action. Outrage can fuel short-term action but can quickly lead to paralysis, and it’s also often not based on fact. The narrative that everything was fine in America before Trump, and that we have suddenly, precipitously turned into Nazi Germany, is not helpful. The first part is inaccurate and offensive – Clinton escalated mass incarceration and crippled the social safety net, W started an unnecessary war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and tanked the economy, and Obama separated tens of thousands of children from their undocumented immigrant parents. The second part, that we are becoming Nazi Germany, some days I believe it, like when the Supreme Court upheld the Muslim ban. Other days it seems that Trump is “only” doing what the U.S. government has done for most of its existence – enrich the wealthy, comfort the powerful, and use any means at its disposal to keep the rest down. But even if it is true that we’re turning into Nazi Germany, then the answer is not outrage, it’s resistance. Outrage is a brief flash of anger; resistance is enduring and strategic. The U.S. has a long strong history of resistance. Rushing out to start a new protest may make us feel like we’re doing something. Joining movements that have existed for years and are led by affected people with experience and a sense of history will get more done. We need to keep our heads in the right place if we’re going to be effective.

Another part of the plan was to be more politically active. We are now both elected committee people in our local Democratic party. We have done a ton of canvassing for candidates at the state and congressional level. Some have been successful, others not, but one undeniable success has been an increase in voter participation. In May, Pennsylvania held primaries for congressional seats.  Typically off-year primary elections see very low turnouts – if 20% of eligible people vote, you’re doing well. Our statewide average this May was 18%. T and I canvassed all over town, and in our precinct at least, after two quick rounds of door-knocking, turnout reached 40%. Now we have a chance in November to turn both our congressional district and our State House district from red to blue. (As John Oliver points out, state races matter a lot. In my district, it’s a chance to kick out the guy who constantly tries to crawl into my uterus and replace him with a candidate who supports abortion rights.)

Our plan also discussed money. We are making more political donations than in the past, to both local candidates and candidates in swing districts across the country. We are continuing monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. And we have been giving more cash directly to people who need it. In my experience, the neediest people are the ones least able to access resources and giving only to programs leaves some people out. In the past year we have given about $1500 directly to individuals who need it. This falls far short of our goal and we need to step it up. I am thinking now about reviving the 10% challenge.

We also planned to take part in more protests and contact representatives more frequently. We have done some of that but not as much as we could. We need to do more.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The creation of racism

I believe categorizing people into “us” and “them” is a natural human instinct, but racism is not. Racism was created. When my children have asked me where it came from, I have always told them that slavery caused racism. In scale and brutality, American slavery was unlike anything the world had seen. But European slave traders and American planters still had to look at themselves in the mirror every day. Because they couldn’t bear to face the evilness of their own actions, they created the myth of racial superiority to justify their actions.

If something was created, that means there was a time before it existed. That’s kind of an obvious point, but I had never really thought about the time before racism existed and about how it was brought into being. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about that time. It’s a very specific time and place – a few decades beginning in 1620 in the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. I’m learning about the very first time the word “white” was used in law in North America to describe a group of people – in Maryland in 1681.

Before there were “white” people, there were English, Irish, Africans, and Indians; “civilized” people and “savages”; Christians and “heathens”; free people, tenants, and bonded laborers. These were all categories of “us” and “them” and it cannot be overstated how much life SUCKED for almost everyone. A few English landowners grew rich and everyone else struggled to survive and often didn’t.  I am not romanticizing this as an egalitarian society. But in the time before racism, the categories were different, and an Irish bonded laborer aligned himself with an African bonded laborer, not with an English landowner. Before the creation of “white” people, Africans and Europeans in Virginia and Maryland shared experiences of servitude and land ownership, married each other, voted at similar rates, and were treated similarly (mostly poorly) by the law.

During Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, European and African laborers united against the ruling class (to hasten the theft of native land - again, not romanticizing). To prevent these kinds of rebellions from continuing, the English elite made a conscious and deliberate decision to create the category of “white” and the myth of white racial superiority. It is this consciousness and deliberateness that is new information to me. In the mid and late 17th century, the colonial assemblies of Virginia and Maryland passed law after law establishing different treatment for Europeans and Africans in owning bond laborers, manumission, owning livestock, marriage, holding public office, voting, serving in militias, owning weapons, and punishments for transgressions. They then required parish clerks to read these laws aloud in church once every spring and fall, and sheriffs to read them aloud in courthouses during the June or July terms of court. Historian Theodore Allen writes, “We must conclude that the general public was regularly and systematically subjected to official white-supremacist agitation. It was to be drummed into the minds of the people… thus was the ‘white race’ invented.”

I realize, as I learn this history, that I have participated in a “great forgetting.” Even though I knew race was an invented social category and I could put the creation of racism into its historical context for my children, somehow I had never thought about the details. Realizing this makes me feel horrified at how successful the myth of white supremacy has been. But it also makes me slightly hopeful. If many of us have forgotten, maybe we can collectively try to remember. Life in the English colonies in the mid 17th century was brutal and oppressive, but “white” and “black” people lived and worked and resisted together with no awareness of our current racial divisions. That image, that knowledge that it happened, helps me visualize a world where it will happen again.