Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Original sin, current suffering

Slavery was the original sin of my country. Or maybe it was hypocrisy. After all, a country that, with a straight face, claims to be founded upon the principle that all men are created equal while simultaneously keeping in enslavement a good percentage of the men who live in that country is a country that practices mendacity and dissimulation even in its founding documents. Two hundred and thirty-nine years have, unfortunately, not been sufficient to wipe away the stain of that original sin, the original lie, and we still suffer the consequences of it today.

The acceptance of slavery at the founding of the country has cast a long, long shadow across attitudes toward those who were enslaved and their descendants. It continues to affect our society and our politics in pernicious ways. It has repercussions on how we deal with social inequities and why we have been more reluctant than any other modern Western country to implement policies that would serve to enhance the equality and the quality of life of its citizens. 

I was thinking about this last week as a result of the latest racist atrocity to claim our attention when I came across a posting on Paul Krugman's blog that referenced a paper published by the Brookings Institute that explored why the approach of the United States to assisting its impoverished citizens has been so different from - and so lacking in comparison to - European countries. The title of the paper is "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?" 

The authors conclude that the reasons mostly have to do with our attitudes toward race, which have their basis in that original sin. One quote from their paper summarizes their conclusion:
Racial discord plays a critical role in determining beliefs about the poor. Since racial minorities are highly overrepresented among the poorest Americans, any income-based redistribution measures will redistribute disproportionately to these minorities. Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies. Across countries, racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution. Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state. 
Of course, it doesn't help when one of the major political parties in the country uses this race-based rhetoric to win elections and extend its power. It gives aid and comfort to those who feel the need to keep others powerless and disenfranchised in order to inflate their own feelings of self-worth. It is a malevolent ideology, one that you would hope would have no place in 2015-16 politics. You would hope in vain. 

And so we seem doomed to continue to live under the shadow of this original sin and suffer its consequences - for example, the refusal of some states to implement Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act because it would help too many of the "wrong people." 

And, in some cases, we even seem doomed to live under its odious symbols.


Unless the South Carolina government acts quickly - which seems unlikely - this symbol which inspired the terrorist who murdered nine of its citizens in a Charleston church last week will still be flying at its capitol when one of those victims, a state legislator, lies in state there later this week.

The state flag of Mississippi. I grew up under this flag and never thought about the fact that the Confederate battle flag was a part of it. In fact, I never thought about that flag, period. The United States flag was my flag. Still is. But this symbol is a slap in the face of much of the population of Mississippi. Kudos to the Speaker of the House (a Republican) in Mississippi for recognizing this and calling for this symbol to be removed from the flag. It won't happen tomorrow, but it is a start.  

Several of the formerly slave-holding states allow these images to be put on their license plates. The Supreme Court just ruled that Texas(!) can refuse to allow that flag on their license plates. The governor of Virginia (a Democrat) has now ordered the phasing out of the symbol on that state's license plates.

Will other states take the hint? Time will tell.





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