Archive for December, 2017

The Puerto Rican Catastrophe – posted 12/25/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 12/27/2017

December 25, 2017 Leave a comment

It has now been over three months since Hurricane Maria and as we have gotten farther away from the storm, news about Puerto Rico has receded. Stories about what is happening on the island are rarer.

Lack of urgency is the best way to characterize the overall American response although the recovery task is admittedly herculean.

Sad to say but the recovery in Puerto Rico has been conducted at a turtle’s pace. The hurricane knocked out 100% of electricity, leaving 3.4 million people in the dark. So far about 65 percent of the island has regained power. This ranks as the longest power outage in American history. It is estimated that electricity will not be entirely restored until May.

This is not commensurate with the hurricane recovery effort in Texas or Florida. No site on the American homeland would have accepted such a slow hurricane response but Puerto Rico lacks the political strength to get a better result.

Along with electricity, access to clean water remains an unsolved problem for virtually all residents. This was a problem even before the hurricane. The Natural Resources Defense Council had issued a report last May showing that 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were served by water sources that violated the Safe Water Drinking Act. Contamination, failure to properly treat water and failure to conduct water testing were among the violations.

Since the hurricane, many Puerto Ricans have continued to report odorous, discolored and ill-tasting water flowing from their taps. Where bottled water is unavailable, water must be boiled or chlorine must be added for water to be drinkable.

An estimated 250,000 Puerto Ricans lost their homes in the hurricane. Hundreds of thousands have left the island since the storm, including 269,000 who have flown to Florida.

The government still does not know how many people died in the hurricane. Although the official government death count stood at 64, the Center for Investigative Journalism revealed at least 985 people died in the 40-day period after Hurricane Maria. A New York Times analysis found the death toll to be 1052.

It appears there has been a vast undercount. Two members of Congress, Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Ms) have requested a federal investigation by the Government Accounting Office. Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello has now ordered a recount of all hurricane deaths.

The new Republican tax bill signed by President Trump particularly harms Puerto Rico. It adds a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property, primarily high-end manufacturing like pharmaceuticals and medical devices. These manufacturing jobs are some of the best jobs on the island.

The tax was designed to make it more expensive for companies to operate outside the United States in “foreign” jurisdictions. For tax purposes, in a legal quirk, Puerto Rico is considered a “foreign” jurisdiction although in almost all other respects it is considered legally domestic.

Puerto Rico lobbied hard to get an exemption from the 12.5 percent tax but that effort failed. At a time when Puerto Rico desperately needs economic recovery, the new tax law will make it more expensive for manufacturers to operate there. It will very likely cost Puerto Rico many good jobs it can ill afford to lose.

In Puerto Rico, over 45 percent of people live in poverty (an income of under $24,000 for a family of four), a rate that is well over twice the rate for the United States. The median household income in Puerto Rico is $19,630. That is about half the median income in our poorest state of Mississippi.

To grasp the depth of the Puerto Rican tragedy, an appreciation of history is required. The history of Puerto Rico has been hidden. For many Americans, Puerto Rico is off the radar screen. It has been separated by geography, language, culture, and ethnicity.

Polls taken after Hurricane Maria indicate that barely 50 percent of our population know that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and that its people are U.S. citizens.

Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the United States took possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, paying Spain $20 million under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Rico was war booty and it became an American colony although it was euphemistically called a territory.

The early 20th century was an era of American imperial expansion in Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine in the background, the United States conducted a military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and a military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1917, the United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million. The acquisition of Puerto Rico was a legacy of colonialism.

The United States set up its own puppet government in Puerto Rico and established English as the official language even though few then knew the language. U.S. officials did not speak Spanish. The President appointed a succession of Anglo governors. No Puerto Rican became governor until 1948 and ynone was elected until 1952.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans gained full American citizenship through the Jones-Shafroth Act. Shortly after, Puerto Ricans were made subject to the military draft. More than 200,000 registered for the draft and 20,000 served in World War One. The Puerto Rican tradition of military service has continued to the present.

Puerto Rico gets no right to vote for president or for any federal office. It has no voting representative in Congress. Puerto Ricans who leave the island and go to Florida or other parts of the United States can have their votes counted in federal and state elections.

Underlying Puerto Rico’s disparate and unequal treatment is Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “Territorial Clause”. The Clause reads:

“The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”

The Territorial Clause maintains Puerto Rico’s colonial status as it is classified as a territory. In assessing its debt crisis and its post-hurricane issues, it must be emphasized that Puerto Rico has had no right to self-determination. It has been essentially a plaything of the American empire. The island’s economic powerlessness is rooted in this colonial structure. The Territorial Clause controls Puerto Rico’s destiny and preempts local authority.

I would point out that there is deep division among Puerto Ricans about their self-determination. During the 20th century, there was an active movement for Puerto Rican independence. 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, a legendary leader of the independence movement.

Little is now remembered about the independence movement. In 1947, the U.S. government passed a law that made it illegal for Puerto Ricans to utter a word, sing a song or whistle a tune against the United States or in favor of independence. In 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House where President Truman was staying. Later in 1954, four members of the nationalist party, among them Lolita Lebron, staged an attack on Congress, wounding five members. President Jimmy Carter granted the four clemency in 1979 after they all served long prison terms.

It remains unclear whether Puerto Ricans prefer statehood or independence. Last June there was a plebiscite where voters chose statehood although only 23% of eligible voters cast ballots. Whether Puerto Rico becomes a state ultimately depends on Congress.

Puerto Ricans are unique in being citizens while being considered foreigners, a contradiction at the core of their identity.

When President Trump went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, he gave himself a “10” out of 10 for hurricane response. He had previously graded himself an A+. He said, “You know what? This is not a real catastrophe. This is not like Katrina.” He famously lobbed paper towels at a crowd.

Considering Puerto Rico’s dire straits, the Administration’s casual response merits no accolades. It is now up to Congress to act. So much more needs to be done.

Categories: Uncategorized

Ways of Being Racist – posted 12/10/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on12/17/2017

December 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Racism is difficult to talk about. The label gets tossed and too often genuine conversation ends. Just mention of the word has been a showstopper. Partisans retreat to their respective corners, back to entrenched positions.

Considering the centrality of race in American life. I think we need a better understanding of how racism has operated. For all the use of the word as a label, racism is usually seen as simply bad ideas.

I would suggest that view is wrong-headed and superficial. How we in America have been racist has changed dramatically since the 18th century. If we look at racism historically, we can gain insight into how we have arrived at our present race predicament.

Racism in America did not mysteriously materialize out of the vast reservoirs of human ignorance and hate. It came out of the need to justify slavery. The beneficiaries of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation produced racist ideas because they wanted to defend themselves intellectually. Defending racism was in their material self-interest and it gave them a way to deflect from their criminal behavior.

In his book, Stamped From the Beginning, Professor Ibram X. Kendi presents a comprehensive overview of how racist ideas have changed over time. The arguments used to justify racism in early America are quite different than what we hear now.

In the 17th and 18th century, racists relied on theological and climate justification. Kendi shows how early preachers drew on the Bible, particularly Genesis, which said that black people were the children of Ham, the son of Noah, and that they were singled out to be black as the result of Noah’s curse. Here slavery was seen as a curse for sins and depraved behavior.

Climate theorists believed that black people were a product of hot climate and that they could literally turn white if they moved into cooler climate. The belief was that placed in the proper cold climate, blacks would adopt European culture, whiten their skin color and grow straight hair.

In early America, there was a nature versus nurture debate about black people. Racists blamed black people for allegedly criminal behavior and disagreed about whether blacks were inherently inferior or whether the race could be improved. Scholars debated whether blacks were a different species as racist scientists conceived of blacks as lesser animals and Blackness was seen as a physiological abnormality.

Preachers like Cotton Mather urged Africans to become obedient slaves. By obeying Mather said slaves “souls will be washed white in the blood of the lamb”. If slaves failed to be orderly servants, then Mather said they would forever welter “under intolerable blows and wounds from the Devil, their overseer”.

Blackness was associated with the Devil and whiteness became the standard of beauty. During the Salem witch trials, religious leaders preached endlessly about black devils. Accused witches were made to confess that black devils made them sign his book.

There was some disagreement among slaveholders about whether slaves could be Christians. Some slaveholders worried about seeing their slaves in heaven.

From 1776 to 1865 and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, slavery was business as usual in much of the country. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence.

In early America, racist ideas were supported by racist laws. While Black Codes are mostly associated with the period after the Civil War, they date back to colonial America. Blacks were not allowed to vote, gather in groups for worship or learn to read and write.

Justifications for racist ideas changed in the 19th century. Racist scholars measured anatomy and the size of human skulls and they evolved the pseudo-science of phrenology. The founder of anthropology in the United States, Dr. Samuel Morton, a phrenologist, found Caucasian skulls to be larger than other races. Morton found that larger skulls equated with larger intellect.

Pseudo-science played a larger role in 19th century racism. One prominent Southern surgeon, Dr. Josiah Nott, owner of nine slaves, advanced a polygenesist theory that claimed humanity and different races originated from different lineages. Charles Darwin later took issue with Nott who had attacked evolutionary theory.

Racist ideas in the late 19th century evolved further with the development of eugenics. Eugenicists tried to prove that personality and mental traits were inherited and superior racial groups inherited superior traits.

Eugenicists were focused on promoting the idea of the purity of the white race. Kendi mentions a book published in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race, by a New York lawyer, Madison Grant. Grant had constructed a racial-ethnic ladder with Nordics (his term for Anglo-Saxons) at the top and Jews, Italians, the Irish, Russians and all non-whites on the lower rungs.

Grant theorized that world history was about the rising and falling of civilizations based on the amount of Nordic blood in each nation. Grant’s book later influenced Adolf Hitler. Hitler thanked Grant, calling his book “my Bible”.

These early eugenics theorists like Madison Grant were forerunners of newer justifiers of inequality like Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray who in 1994 produced The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Hernnstein and Murray argued that there was a cognitive difference between blacks and whites although they acknowledged some role for environment.

Hernnstein and Murray essentially saw social inequality as a result of biology. Thinking like this promoted the view that disparities around race were inherent.

More recently, the ideology of colorblindness has held sway. The assumption has been that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible without regard to race. The problem is this ideology ignores 250 years of African American history.

Kendi shows there has been a historical struggle around how blame has been assigned for the discrimination against non-white people. Blaming the victim of discrimination has been a long-term historical pattern. As Kendi writes:

“When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for the oppression.”

From the perspective of 2017, the historical succession of racist ideas demonstrate both their stupidity and their absurdity. It seems almost unbelievable that so recently so many believed such obviously wrong ideas. Yet we live in an era when white supremacy is trying to make yet one more comeback.

It is past time that we overcome any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another group.

Categories: Uncategorized