The Casual Blog

Tag: caste system

Bears, happy Juneteenth, and a solution to poverty

On our way back from the Outer Banks, we took a detour through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  We saw two mother bears, each with two cubs, a barred owl, a flock of white ibises, and various other interesting birds, reptiles, and plants.  We were excited, and also worried, to see a rare, critically endangered red wolf standing beside Highway 64 and looking at the traffic.  Hope he or she is OK.

I you, like me, have an affectionate interest in wild animals, I recommend Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald.  It’s a collection of short personal essays about the natural world.  Macdonald explores the thrill and peace that nature can bestow, and helps us appreciate its fragility.  The NY Times review is here.    

This week Juneteenth became a national holiday.  Some Americans are just now learning about the original event, June 19, 1865, when African Americans in Texas first learned that slaves had been declared emancipated.  The basic idea of the holiday is to celebrate the end of slavery and beginning of freedom.  

Most of us surely agree that this is a good reason for celebration, though not all.  As I was practicing my golf swing at the range, I overheard an older golfer speaking disparagingly of the new holiday, and adding that “they” were “taking over.”  I wondered how he could have such an ignorant and poisonous idea, and then I remembered:  “us” and “them” was the basic framework a lot of us were trained in from birth, and some still are.  These ideas have long, hard-to-pull-out roots.

Also, racial segregation is still the rule in most American neighborhoods, schools, and churches.  There’s room for discussion about the details of why this is true in 2021, but plainly a lot has to do with the legacy of slavery.  One consequence is that it takes effort to get to know people of a different race, which increases the difficulty of dislodging our early training in the caste system.

But there are also other forces at work.  This week Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column examined the causes of so-called populism of Trump and similar movements elsewhere.  Edsall quoted various thinkers who identified economic forces, including artificial intelligence and other technology, robotics, and globalized outsourcing, that continue to cause job losses and threats to status for many, causing increasing insecurity and fear.  

Demagogues whip up these fears and blame minorities and immigrants for these losses.  Those with good reasons to feel economically insecure are often latch on to simple solutions to their problems, especially when they resonate with their early racial training.  

Why don’t we just eliminate poverty?  It sounds like something we could all agree is a good idea.   But as Ezra Klein wrote last week, poverty is a well accepted part of our economic system, and eliminating it would threaten some valued privileges of the privileged. 

As Klein explains, Americans rely on low wage workers in order to have cheap goods and services.  In this light, it makes sense to resist raising the minimum wage above the poverty level, allowing workers freedom to organize, or extending jobless benefits.  If low wage workers were less desperate, they might well not take jobs that are mind-numbing or dangerous and pay barely enough to survive.  Employers would have to provide better working conditions, and better wages and benefits.  They’d lose some profits, and all of us would have to pay higher prices.

 

This aspect of American-style capitalism is seldom discussed, but worth discussing now.  We learned from the covid pandemic that our government can organize massive resources in a hurry to address economic distress.  We may have assumed before that there’s nothing we can do to help the mass of people who work at or below the poverty level, but we now have good evidence that that’s just not true.

Klein’s piece discusses a recent study out of the New School proposing a promising approach to mitigating poverty:  a guaranteed annual income of $12,500 plus an allowance for children.  The payments would phase out for those with incomes above the poverty level.  It would require a budget increase of about 20 percent, which could be paid with taxes at about the level of other wealthy nations.  

It’s an interesting idea, though it obviously runs hard against the grain of neo-liberalism.  Indeed, Republican leaders in several states are currently looking to cut emergency covid relief, including not only  money but also food programs, on the theory that workers won’t work as required unless they’re truly desperate.  We have here a very dark side of American capitalism.  Just as was true before 1865, some are willing to watch people starve, if that’s what it takes to force them to work.  

So old questions need to be asked again:  how much do we value human life?  How much suffering are we willing to inflict in the name of prosperity?  What are we willing to sacrifice to move towards a more just society?   I’m hopeful, though I wouldn’t say confident, that our better angels are ascendent.

On a completely different subject, I want to recommend a short essay on Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, One Art. The essay in the Times by Dwight Garner and Parul Seghal is beautifully presented, and gets straight to the point.  Even if you aren’t much interested in poetry, you might find something of real value.  

Flowers, and the latest culture war battlefield: stopping anti-racism

Raulston Arboretum is a quiet refuge for plants, birds, and people.  Before the pandemic, I visited the big garden at N.C. State  a few times each spring to see the new blooms, and I really missed it last year.  Now it’s open again, and things are growing wonderfully.  The daffodils have gone and the irises are waning, but the roses have arrived in force.  

It’s really cheering to see our leaders working on some of our real problems, like climate change, infectious diseases, police violence, roads and bridges, jobs with fair wages, child care, health care,  voting rights, and education.    


Not so cheering is the latest culture war ploy to rouse the MAGA base:  attacking critical race theory and education on the legacy of slavery.  Outside of specialized scholars, few had heard of critical race theory until recently, and none had reason to worry about its undermining the social order.  Now Republicans in several states are working to ban it from classrooms, and McConnell and most GOP senators are characterizing anti-racism as “divisive nonsense.”

Critical race theory raises problems concerning race and the legal system.  McConnell, the Fox pundits, and their allies are promoting the view that this amounts to criticizing America as hopelessly evil.  Their position is that talking about our race problems is essentially traitorous, and should be stopped.

This is bizarre, but also makes a kind of sense.  For anyone just arriving from outer space:  Americans have been thoroughly socialized in a caste system that distinguishes between people and allocates privileges based on skin color, with the lighter people generally privileged over the darker people.  Understanding how this came to be, how it works now, and what can be done about it is complicated.  The background includes hundreds of years of history, as well as laws, schools, and customs.  

It hadn’t occurred to me until this week that a possible response from the right wing, or anyone, could be:  the racial caste system doesn’t exist.  That’s as delusional as saying the last election was stolen from Trump, or that we need to change our voting laws to prevent fraud by Democrats.  But here we are.  

Of course, some well meaning people believe that the best thing to do about our race problems is to try to treat all people the same and act like race does not exist.  In fact, it’s true in one sense that race is a fiction.  It’s a creation of culture, rather than of biology.  

But a key part of our culture rests on what we’ve learned to think of as differences in races.  We’ve been thoroughly schooled in those supposed differences, to the point that many of us mistakenly think they’re inherent in nature.  Becoming conscious of our own understanding of race and getting rid of the myths and fears we carry around is a big educational project.  It requires some long discussions, with good teachers and leaders. 

We have some such leaders working to correct unfairness in our system, but unfortunately, there are others, like McConnell and the Disgraced Former President, now proposing to lead in the opposite direction.    

On top of the spurious racial notions bequeathed to us by our forefathers, politicians have been using race as a political wedge issue for several generations.  Cynical politicians periodically organize by stoking groundless fears of attacks by violent erratic dark-skinned people, or (with no regard for consistency) of overly diligent dark-skinned people taking our jobs.  This lying strategy has often been successful in attracting votes, and has reinforced the caste system.

The right-wing attack on critical race theory is related to this, but with an interesting twist.  Instead of directly targeting dark-skinned people, it targets those who want to discuss the systemic problems of the caste system.  As part of this, in a classic Orwellian/Trumpian move, it tries to re-label anti-racism as racism.  

The right-wing objective is to prevent discussions that challenge the advantages of the privileged caste.  As a bonus, it provides a moral self-justification for silencing the discussion:  the privileged silencers can think of themselves as good people who oppose racial distinctions.  

As Americans, we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as on the whole good, well-meaning folks.  We’ve been steered away from learning much about the immoral and tragic forces that helped build our country (like slavery and expulsion of indigenous peoples) and the continuing brutality of our caste system (like widespread police violence and mass imprisonment).  

Our education system has been sadly deficient in equipping us to address such problems.   For a long time, many of us in the privileged castes barely noticed how the caste system disadvantaged the low caste folks.  With de facto segregation, we seldom saw them, except when they quietly worked for us.  Many of us accepted the system as on balance a pretty good one.  

But here we are.  We’re learning more about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement. We’re learning more about how we took the land of indigenous people through brutal violence and trickery.  We’ve started the discussion about fixing our caste system, which will not be easy.  Even ignoring the right wingers who view any such efforts as treason, there are still many who believe the stereotypes they were taught  Unpacking such ideas will take a lot of work.   

Earth Day in eastern NC, processing the Chauvin verdict, and catching up with The Handmaid’s Tale

Glossy ibises at Lake Mattamuskeet

         Sally and I had a particularly good Earth Day this year visiting eastern North Carolina.   The enormous wildlife refuges near the NC coast have large populations of black bears, and we were hoping to see some of their new cubs.  We failed as to the cubs, but saw a group of six bears.  We also found a lot of beautiful birds, including a large flock of glossy ibises, a new species for us.   There were hardly any people, which was just fine.

Bears at Pocosin Lakes

The trial of Minneapolis police officer Eric Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd ended this week with a jury verdict of guilty on all counts.  The evidence of guilt seemed overwhelming, but given our history, the outcome was far from certain.  It is disturbingly common in the US for police to use extreme force on Black people, but extremely rare for a police officer to be charged and convicted for resulting injuries and deaths.  

The Chauvin trial has inspired some useful discussion of why this is so, and what needs to change.  Part of the story is the background rule of qualified immunity, a circular Supreme Court doctrine that usually protects police even in egregious cases.  Another aspect is police union contracts that prevent firing of officers guilty of racist misconduct.  There is the famous blue wall of silence, the unofficial rule that generally prevents officers from testifying against other officers.  Less famous is the standard procedure among district attorneys of ignoring police crimes, with a view to maintaining good relations with them for reasons of DA career advancement.  

Above all, there is our racist caste system.  In our system, for a long time many of us were taught that Black men are more violent and dangerous than other people.  Even now, after that lie has been thoroughly debunked, many ordinary potential jurors believe it.  With such racist training still lodged in their minds, it isn’t hard to convince them that a police officer that killed a Black man had a reasonable fear for himself, no matter what the circumstances, other than that the man was Black.

Tree swallow

My guess is that Chauvin and his lawyers were counting on there being at least one juror with this traditional mindset, since there normally is.  For such a person, it would be possible to repeatedly watch the horrifying video and hear abundant supporting testimony without concluding that Chauvin committed murder.  For a juror with a strong enough filter of racial bias, any police violence against Black people would seem reasonable and justified.

The good news is the Chauvin jurors managed to see past racial filters and look at the evidence.  This suggests we’re making some progress in unwinding the caste system.   But of course, there’s a lot more work to be done.  

Here’s a new exhibit in that case:  Black Lives Matter protests are now being targeted by Republican state legislators.  According to the NY Times, this year there have been anti-protest bills in 34 states.  Some proposed laws immunize drivers who drive into protestors, while others add prison terms and other harsh penalties for protesting.  This is appalling, but also instructive.

The Times reported that almost all of the BLM protests were peaceful, with an estimate that only 4 percent involved some property damage or police injuries.  Nevertheless, for many Republicans, influenced by right wing media, the false impression persists that the protests were instead mainly about violent Black people attacking the police.

Canada geese family

Our long training in the caste system makes it possible for some of us to look at one thing (Black people systematically victimized by police violence) and see the exact opposite (police and white people being targeted by Black people).  This fits into and reinforces a narrative of white victimhood, which works to conceal the much larger story of white privilege.  

Wherever you look, you will likely find a strong remnant of this caste training that distorts reality.  I doubt it will lose its hold in this generation, but it seems to be getting weaker. 

Last week Sally and I have finally caught up with The Handmaid’s Tale, a television series that premiered in 2017, and which we began watching on Hulu a couple of months ago.  When I first heard about THT, I thought it was probably not for us.  We’re not especially keen on science fiction, particularly when it’s dark and violent.  But so far (with the 4th season about to begin), we’ve found it absorbing, thought provoking, and even at times inspiring.

The set up for THT is this:  in the near future, a fanatical religious group has seized power in the United States and imposed a police state they call Gilead which has a rigid caste system with women at the bottom.  The permissible roles for women are limited (mostly cooking, cleaning, child-bearing), and they must wear uniforms that correspond to their roles.  

Women married to higher caste men get to wear handsome teal capes, but like all women are not allowed to read or do work outside the home.  Because of a fertility crisis, Gilead has created a ceremony to allow higher caste men to rape low caste women to impregnate them.  

The idea sounds over the top, but it turns out that Gilead is a great laboratory for imaginative testing of some of our actual notions and values.  Patriarchy, misogyny, and other expressions of hierarchy (such as racism) are so much a part of our own world that it’s easy to stop seeing them, or to assume that they’re natural and necessary.  THT helps us to reconsider some of our underlying assumptions about gender roles, as well as other orthodoxies.  

This experiment in imagination seems more urgent since the attack on the Capital of last January 6.  According to recent polling, a majority of Republicans continue to believe the Disgraced Former President’s lies about his winning the last election, and very few have condemned his efforts to throw out the election results and take over the US government.  Republicans in many states continue to work on changing their voting systems to increase their advantage by making it harder for people of color to vote.  In addition, they’re now trying to throw out the Republican state election officials who helped save our democracy by following the law instead of the lying ex-pres.  

Kingbird

It’s hard not to see a disturbingly large overlap between the traditionalist patriarchal authoritarian system of Gilead and the MAGA view of how America should be.  At the same time, Gilead has one aspect of social justice that both the MAGA ideal and our actual present caste system does not:  in Gilead, Black people are treated just like non-Black people.  That is, there is no difference in the respect and opportunities people receive based on skin color.  Gilead, along with horrifying systematic misogyny, also is a reminder that our racialized caste system is a cultural invention and can be reformed.

Gilead is a police state with armed soldiers watching at all times and preventing unapproved discussions by women.  There are brutal public punishments, like mass hangings, stonings, and removal of limbs.  

But interestingly, the Gilead surveillance methods are not nearly as advanced as those now being used in China, or even in the US.  Gilead has few if any video cameras watching the streets, businesses, or living spaces, and apparently no supercomputers analyzing facial recognition and other data (as China and we do).  A MAGA version of Gilead would almost certainly be more technologically adept at identifying and suppressing dissent.    

So I’ve gone from thinking that the world of THT is an over-the-top fantasy to seeing it as something that almost just happened, and still could.  Except the MAGA version might well be more efficient and cruel.  

The good news is that even in Gilead, there is resistance by people with compassion and courage.  It won’t spoil the story for me to say the women there turn out to be resourceful and strong.  Their unflinching and mostly non-violent struggle against oppression is inspiring.  Maybe it will inspire some of us to continue opposing our own moralizing oligarchs.

Visiting Oberlin Cemetery, and five lessons from Hurricane Trump

Oberlin Cemetery in Raleigh

This week I went over to the Oberlin Cemetery, off of Oberlin Road in Raleigh, and learned a little history.  The cemetery served the Village of Oberlin, which was founded in 1865 by just freed formerly enslaved people.  It was named after Oberlin, Ohio, an abolitionist stronghold on the underground railroad, and site of Oberlin College, my alma mater.  

For a time, even as Reconstruction ended and the racist Jim Crow system started in the late 1870s, the little Village of Oberlin did just fine, gradually adding black owned businesses, schools, and churches.  The Depression of the 30s dealt it a harsh blow as local jobs disappeared, and many young people went north in the Great Migration.  In the 1950s, it was cut in two by an extension of Wade Avenue, and further disassembled by so-called urban renewal in the 1960s.  How much of the destruction of the community was driven by racism and how much was due to ordinary merciless capitalism?  Further study is needed.  

Today Oberlin Avenue is largely a commercial strip, and hardly anything remains of the 19th century village.  But there is an old cemetery that was started in the 1870s, which is worth visiting.  As these pictures show, it has large oaks, pines, and magnolias, and some attractive monuments.  Much of it isn’t carefully tended, but the fact that it is still there is a testimony to the strength of the black community there and its descendants.  

Last week we celebrated the Fourth of July more quietly than usual, or at least, most of us did.  President Trump had military jets fly over Mt. Rushmore, and before the fireworks, gave a speech in which he went all in on his trademarked fear mongering.  He targeted “angry mobs” tearing down our statues, and “bad, evil people” intent on intimidating “[us].”  You understand who he means by “us,” right?     

At this point, it looks like more and more people are noticing that Trump is totally incompetent and corrupt, a person who manages to be at once ridiculous and alarmingly vicious, who’s putting our lives and our democratic institutions at risk.  From recent polling, it looks reasonably likely that he’ll be defeated and gone in a few months.  Then we’ll be faced with the large task of the post storm clean up and rebuilding.  But in a way, I feel grateful that we’ve learned some things from Hurricane Trump.  

For example, here are five lessons learned:

1. Old-style racism is far from dead in America.  I’m talking about the people who still want to fly the Confederate flag and use the N word.  They’re a minority, but Trump turned them from a barely visible minority to one that feels proud and empowered, marching in the streets with guns and shouting excitedly.  The good thing is, we now understand that they are there and that we have to calm them down and address them.

2.  Xenophobia, the close relative of racism, is far from dead in America.  Lots of people who are uncomfortable with the N word are fearful of immigrants who look different and speak different languages.  “Build the Wall” makes no sense as geopolitics, but it makes perfect sense as political theatre.  Scapegoating foreigners has a long and ugly history in our country, and it has had another nasty revival as part of Trumpism.  But as with the previous item, at least now we know, and can start to address it. 

3. The American racial caste system is alive and well.  I’m distinguishing here between the racist ideals of avowed white supremacists and the more widespread sentiment that it’s natural and normal that white people have better schools, better houses, more money, and so forth, because that’s just how things happened to work out. 

The caste system ensures that we avoid inquiries that would undermine the system, like looking at our long and bloody history of oppression of minorities and the structural inequalities in jobs, housing, education, banking, and health care.  The caste system is harder to grasp than full on racism, but probably more corrosive.  Trump has done us the great service of bringing it more into view, and here again, he’s made it more possible to address. 

4.  We are sufficiently powerful to endanger a lot of the natural world, but not so powerful as to stop it from destroying us.  Over the last few decades, the science of climate change has become harder and harder to deny, but the President is still a die hard denialist.  Far from countering the looming catastrophe of climate change, he is working hard to bring it upon us as quickly as possible, through more fossil fuel mining and burning, less efficient cars, and opposition to every mitigation effort, including international climate cooperation and scientific research.  He even has new regulations to encourage more killing of wild animals!   

But we can be certain that Trump will not stop nature.  It’s very strong.  If we don’t change course, the atmosphere will continue to warm, with still more of our weather disasters like extreme hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, floods, and rising sea levels.  We can look forward to more deadly pandemics related to climate change and expanding human populations.  Here again, Trump has made our problems more visible and urgent.

5.  People are more prone to manipulation and delusion than we thought.  It’s easy to make fun of proponents of Pizzagate and QAnon, which are self-evident lunacy.  And we might have thought that having a president that lies constantly and shamelessly would eventually cause some distress and consternation even among his strong supporters.  But strangely, at least for many, it doesn’t.  

It turns out that constant lies tend to make us exhausted, cynical and indifferent, not much interested in truth, or prone to exotic conspiracy delusions like the Deep State.  With an efficient propaganda machine led by Fox News, facts are gradually replaced by alternative facts, and actual facts come to be viewed as fake news.  Even Orwell never imagined a manipulation and delusion system as disturbing, and as effective, as the one created by Trumpism.  

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Thanks to Trump, we can now see that elements of our system that we took for granted as sound and workable were badly deteriorated and close to catastrophic failure.  We thought we were living in a well constructed, comfortable house, and it turns out the foundations are rotten and the roof also needs to be replaced.  

The repairs are going to be time consuming and expensive.  It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.  We need to focus hard on getting him safely out of the house, and then we can get started on the crucial repairs.  

On a cheerier note, I recommend Becoming, a documentary about Michelle Obama  which we just saw on Netflix.  I knew she was a gifted person, but I hadn’t known much about her story, or her remarkable ability to connect with people.