Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Today’s young Americans live in a remarkable future.  From the day we were born, we’ve been told by our parents, our relatives, our teachers, our coaches, our mentors, and our friends that the world for us is a land of unbounded opportunity.  Pick a dream, we were told, and fight for that dream.  Nothing would be off limits to those of us who worked hard enough.  Thanks to our parents, racism, poverty, sexism, and so many other social ills had supposedly been defeated; men had gone to the moon; and dinner could be made by placing food inside of a magical box-shaped machine.  We were handed what looked like a world of guaranteed excellence, without any significant obstacles left in our way.

To earn our place in this brave new world, we dutifully spent our childhoods in school (not that we had a choice).  There we learned how to read (sort of), how to write (or type, whichever), and how to do math (2 + 2 = potato?).  We learned about history (so full of evil white men, and nobody else, ever, except maybe MLK… and the guy who invented peanut butter!), science (E = mc2 = atom bombs), and government (all five1 branches).  We took classes on art and music (until their budgets got cut).  And in the end we were told it was time to go to college, to learn the skills that we would need to prepare us for the rest of our lives.

Those of us who followed the template, we each spent a year or two in preschool, twelve years in mandatory education, another four (or five, or six) years in might-as-well-be-mandatory education.  What we got in exchange for those twenty years of our lives was a confidence that we were finally ready.  We were told that it was time to take on the world, to be truly our own people, and to make our dreams come true.

Confident and daring, we went out and got ourselves into post-collegiate housing (which looks conspicuously like our childhood bedrooms) and mastered the art of gourmet cooking (“Insert burrito [A] into magical machine [B]”).  We got used to taking charge household chores like mowing the lawn (or calling the lawn service, or letting the lawn service service call the lawn service, or letting the lawn service service service… uh… where were we?), vacuuming (roomba!), and laundry (just like in college).  We went out and got found looked for talked on Facebook about how hard it is to get jobs, thankful that being an adult doesn’t mean we have to stop playing games with our friends.  And when one of our things breaks, our parents are right there to tell us how to fix it (or to just fix it themselves, since, after all, they already know how).

Right from the beginning, we’ve been raised in a sea of useless knowledge with a promise that, somehow, all of that would come together to unlock the pathway to our dreams.  The truth is that, for most of us, it won’t.  Very few of us pass our days dreaming of being able to sit around for days on end thinking, perhaps trying to conceive of amazing new worlds, or unique new perspectives through which to view the world that we share.  Most of us want to actually do something, but through our whole lives we have never learned how.

The full ramifications of this are far from obvious, but a few important observations are in order.  Because we have been systematically denied knowledge of the world, we are often ill-equipped to handle many of the bad situations which naturally arise during life.  This leads to the perception that even though we are now in our 20s and 30s, that we are still children who are helpless without our parents’ care.  Worse still, it denies us the ability to stand up for ourselves, because we have become so dependent on others for help that we wouldn’t dare to risk disrupting that support network — a support network which includes the government.

In our culture and media, it’s become common to make fun of the Millennials for being so clueless about “common sense” kinds of things.  While this makes for good comedy, it neglects the true nature of what’s really happened.  The lack of knowledge isn’t a result of laziness or stupidity.  It is, instead, a systemic result of doing what we’ve been told, learning what we’ve been taught, and living the life that was set out in the template that we were provided at birth.

It seems that our world without obstacles may be an obstacle all to itself.

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A Generation of Broken Promises

   Posted by: Robert

Over the Easter holiday, I had the opportunity to catch up on some television as I passed some time with my best friend.  In watching some of those shows, it was hard for me not to notice their disturbingly accurate portrayal of the Millennial Generation.  The plight of the generation raised by the Baby Boomers remains largely unknown in society and in America’s popular culture.  Although most people know a Millennial whose life is not all that it seems like it should be, and while many people recognize that such trouble is common to the point of seeming normal, the plight of the Millennials remains largely an open secret.  At its core, much of the trouble comes from a series of bad and broken promises which threaten to destroy the entire generation.

On those rare occasions where we see Millennials in the media, the portrayal is often far from positive.  The standard portrayal is of young adults who live mostly single lives, often amidst a stream of broken or failed relationships which are as heavy on sex as they are light on romance.  These Millennials tend to have rather poor jobs, when they have jobs at all, and being satisfied with their work is more of a bonus than a goal.  The Millennials are educated far more than people would realize based on the jobs that they have (or don’t have), although schooling is also not a focus.  Indeed, it’s hard to discern any particular focus, as they mostly seem cast astray in an uncaring world filled with uncaring people who offer no help or direction for their lives.

Reality, it seems, is kind of like that.

On a whole, vast range of issues, Millennials were promised the world by their Boomer parents only to find that the world is a lot different than they had expected.  Millennials were taught during their childhoods that they can do anything, only to find out that they were never taught how.  They were told that they are unique and special individuals, only to find their lives reduced to data which gets fed into overgrown advertising machines.  They were taught that education was the key to success and that college was the key to unlimited achievement, only to find that even the most banal of jobs have come to require a bachelor’s degree.  They were shown a world full of opportunity, only to find that the people who currently hold all of the power are trying to cling to the world of yesteryear with no great visions for the future.

This month, I plan to consider the Millennials and the unique circumstances which affect the generation which will be the next to blossom across the American scene.  Although they have been carefully hidden, their issues will become an increasingly important part of the American landscape within the next twenty years.  Understanding their issues now may pave the way to ensure that there is still some future left for a generation which is trapped in the shadow of their parents.


Budget, Ho!

   Posted by: Robert

On the heels of the striking success Senator Rand Paul had in addressing the threat of drone strikes against American citizens, Congress’s other famously conservative Paul has come out with a full fledged budget proposal to solve the sequester and put America on the path toward fiscal sanity.  Representative Paul Ryan’s latest budget should come as a surprise to nobody who has paid any attention to his work the past several years.  Indeed, it’s substantially the same budget he proposed back in 2011, but repackaged to account for the progression of time over the past two years.  The goals of the budget have remained the same, and most of the specific policy initiatives are familiar.  Expect a video depicting Paul Ryan throwing a grandmother off a cliff any day now.

What is different this time around is the pretence of Democrats and Republicans having a common objective in budget negotiations.  To be specific, we had that in 2011. This year, any illusion of common ground is being swiftly laid to rest.

Case in point is an article in the New York Times which quotes President Obama as saying, “Our biggest problems in the next 10 years are not deficits.”  According to the New York Times, he went on to say, “It may be that ideologically, if their position is, ‘We can’t do any revenue,’ or, ‘We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,’ if that’s the position, then we’re probably not going to be able to get a deal.”  The New York Times summarizes the Democrat position in this way:  “Congressional Democrats and Mr. Obama, noting that the government has long operated with deep deficits, do not see a need for a balanced budget as long as spending is kept in check.”  A budget proposal from Senate Democrats adds $100 billion in new stimulus spending and runs a $600 billion deficit in ten years.  The contrast with Congressman Ryan’s proposal is stunning.  The Ryan proposal makes meaningful changes to entitlement programs and cuts spending throughout the government.  His proposal eventually balances the budget without raising taxes.

Fundamentally, the difference between the Right and the Left is that conservatives believe that prosperity comes from saving money, while liberals believe that prosperity results from spending.  Between those positions is no common ground, which means that there’s ultimately nothing to negotiate over.  Victory in this battle over budgets means winning outright.

The good news for conservatives is that, even despite Obama’s victory, Republicans are still seen as being the party of choice when it comes to finance and the economy.  Even better, because nothing much has changed about the Republican budget since the last time it was introduced, the Democrats have already used up most of their attacks.  Also good is the fact that the nation is surviving the sequester well enough that getting away from it is hardly the national crisis that it was made out to be.  Indeed, by proving that the country can survive with reduced spending, the sequester plays directly into conservatives’ hands.

The key for Republicans is to not negotiate a chance at victory into a certain defeat.  Republicans need to stand by Senator McConnell’s assertion after the “fiscal cliff” tax increases that additional tax increases are off the table, and will stay there.  Democrats must not be allowed to have a “balanced approach” of immediate tax increases coupled with deferred imaginary spending cuts to happen at a later date never.

The contrast between the Republican and Democrat budgets is a great backdrop for renewing the conversation about economics and government spending in America.  With a boost of momentum right now on our side, now is the time to push forward and stay strong.  After all, a balanced budget is a wonderful thing.


The Long and Winding Road of Equality

   Posted by: Robert

As Black History Month enters its final week, it seems appropriate to take a long glance back at the path of Black history in America.  The sound bite version is accurate enough for what it is: Blacks have been subjected to long term discrimination and racism, but things, though still not perfect, have gotten better.  We know about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the two events in our nation’s history which have had the most profound impact on the status of Blacks in America.  In terms of race relations, both events could be rightly regarded as revolutions, casting aside regimes of oppression to liberate a people which had been subject to tyrannical rule.

Indeed, the Civil War was all at once a revolution and a counter-revolution for which social upheaval was guaranteed, regardless of which side won.  The Confederacy was, of course, fighting for the right to direct their own future, outside of the dictates of the US Government which many at the time believed was becoming too oppressive against the Southern way of life.  The Union, although largely not fighting for the express purpose of freeing the slaves, was nevertheless fighting toward that purpose anyway.  Had the Confederacy won, their history books would likely venerate Robert E. Lee as today we do George Washington, who won a great victory against the overbearing regime of Abraham Lincoln (playing the part of King George) and securing the liberty of the Confederate States of America.  In the real world, it was the overbearing regime of plantation owners that was obliterated, adding Blacks, for the first time, to the list of “all men [who] are created equal.”  Of course, as revolutions go, this one was a bit strange: It was white people fighting white people, with the benefits to Blacks, although profound, mostly incidental to the reason for the war.

Although largely not violent, and never fought with the goal of establishing a new nation, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a revolution more in line with that fought by the founders during the American Revolution.  America’s founders fought as Englishmen for the rights due to them as Englishmen, which the King had seen fit to deny.  It was in much the same way that powerful Black leaders — Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and others — fought as Americans for the rights due to them as Americans, which were denied to them at every turn by governments and private actors alike.  Much like the American Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement did not come during the height of oppression, but happened at a time when small but consequential improvements were starting to be made.

Of course, between the revolutions lie a lot of in-between moments in history that seldom get discussed in history textbooks.  One of those moments came shortly after the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court began to consider cases which would shape the landscape of the coming cultural and legal changes that would overtake the country during the 1950s and 60s.  The Court during the 30s and 40s addressed racial issues only occasionally, but the decisions it made were important to the future development of the law.  Many of the Court’s rulings on criminal procedure had a disproportionate effect on Blacks, because improper and unconstitutional police tactics were often employed against Blacks to prevent them from fully exercising their rights as citizens.  By insisting on due process for Black defendants, the Court not only fought against wrongful convictions, but also helped to foster an atmosphere in which Blacks would not need to worry so greatly about being arrested merely for being Black.

Though not glamorous, such incremental changes reflect important truths about the nature of change in America.  Although we are often willing to accept radical new ideas, it also takes time to weave those ideas into our cultural fabric.  The 40s saw repeated endorsements of “separate but equal” from the federal and local governments alike, but pressure at the national level placed ever greater emphasis on ensuring that “but equal” had teeth.  While history books pan this as endorsement of segregation, it was also a necessary step in the evolution of thought which would culminate in Brown v. Board of Education‘s evisceration of the “separate but equal” doctrine.  We cannot, after all, have a revolution every day.

Morgan Freeman, complaining about Black History Month, once declared in an interview that “Black history is American history.”  Although he did not intend his words in this way, the reality is that the progress of freedom for Blacks is a story of progress and change in America.  Progress toward equality has taken a long time, in part because we started so far from the goal that getting there takes a great deal of time.  Persistence and patience are, themselves, great lessons from the struggles of Black history.


Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World

   Posted by: Robert

When looking back through musical history, one name that’s almost impossible to miss is that of Louis Armstrong.  Most famous for his influence on jazz music, many of Mr. Armstrong’s recordings remain alive and appreciated today.  His voice and his trumpet produced for him a level of fame that today we would consider him a superstar.  His fame crossed racial boundaries in a way that was unprecedented in his day, and indeed has seldom been duplicated since.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 to an impoverished family in New Orleans.  He took an interest in music from an early age, joining a quartet at age 11 to earn some additional money for his family.  His childhood led him to make several important connections which would be influential to him for the remainder of his life.  Among them was a close relationship with a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family.  Through them, he learned that discrimination was not a Blacks-only problem (antisemitism was common)  and that determination was a key to success.

Despite having directly felt the impact of racism and despite having seen the effect of discrimination on others outside of his race, Mr. Armstrong spent very little of his life on matters of race or politics.  A musician above all else, he moved around with the guidance and support of his wife to establish himself as a prominent musician.  His distinctive voice and instrumental skill distinguished him his contemporaries and formed the basis of his personal brand of music.  His preference was to avoid calling attention to his race and to allow his music to speak for itself.

And speak it did.  By any measure then or now, Mr. Armstrong was unmistakably famous; not only among Blacks, but among whites as well.  His fame across the racial divide was unusual, to say the least, and may have actually been unprecedented.  Although he was hardly the only famous Black entertainer of his day, very few of his contemporaries achieved anything like his level of success outside of Black audiences.  He was accepted by white society in a way that few other Blacks to that point had managed.  Without really trying, he became the first Black man to stay at a number of high class hotels, eat at a number of high class restaurants, and do many other things that had long been recognized as part of the providence of white privileged society.

His aversion of discussing matters of race did come at some personal cost.  Those interested in promoting equality for Blacks were disappointed that Mr. Armstrong did not use his fame and influence to promote the cause of civil rights.  His failure to publicly champion Black equality, particularly when combined with the “white” privilege he personally enjoyed, caused a number of commentators to label him an “Uncle Tom.”  Despite the epithet, he continued to spend most of his life and career away from race or politics.

One notable exception, however, came in 1957 when he cancelled a trip to the Soviet Union which had been planned on behalf of the United States Department of State.  The abrupt cancellation came out of his anger over President Eisenhower’s handling of a conflict in Little Rock, Arkansas over racial integration at one of the city’s schools.  Mr. Armstrong’s sharp words about the President and the Federal Government became part of a national firestorm which culminated in the President ordering the 101st airborne to escort nine Black students past the Arkansas National Guard.

Mr. Armstrong died from a heart attack a month before his 70th birthday.  In his life, he broke many barriers on the strength of his character and fame.  He is rightly regarded as one of the most influential musicians in American history and is personally credited for a number of innovations in jazz.  The determination he learned as a child carried him well through his career.  Despite criticism that he did not do enough in his life to promote civil rights, he is nevertheless a stunning example of how strong individuals can overcome their circumstances to become American legends.


Black Ganghood

   Posted by: Robert

When one thinks of the way we caricature Blacks in society, images of violence are not hard to draw to mind.  So-called “crimes” of the “doing some normal thing while Black” variety can often be traced back to a cultural assumption that Black people are up to no good.  At the epitome of that cultural role is the image (and reality) of Blacks as members of gangs.  Socially and culturally, we deplore gang membership and gang violence, and have had an ongoing but largely ineffective War on Gangs.  This war, particularly as it relates to Blacks, largely ignores the history of Black gangs and the role that gang membership plays today in society.

One pillar of Black gang membership can be traced back through history to the late 1700s, the quill of Thomas Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence.  A second pillar, erected on December 15, 1791, is commonly known as the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.  The Declaration stated with some clarity that when a regime of government has become too oppressive to be considered just, that it is necessary for the victims of that oppression to chart a different course.  The Second Amendment reserved an important tool for defending such a divergent charter, expressly providing that violence may, at times, be the answer.  Black gangs are a little bit like that.

Many of America’s most well known Black gangs arose out of the pervasive racism throughout American society prior to the Civil Rights Movement.  Blacks, it’s well known, were often denied justice under the law.  The classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird illustrates the “justice” that was so often available to Blacks in America, in which legendary attorney Atticus Finch was unable to win an acquittal of a Black man who was falsely accused of rape despite presenting the court with proof of his client’s innocence.  And in the real life case of White v. Texas, a Black man convicted on the basis of a torture-coerced confession won a new trial from an institution no less than the Supreme Court of the United States, but was shot in the courtroom during his trial by the alleged victim’s father; the father was later acquitted on the urging of the prosecution.

The long and short of the matter is that, throughout much of America’s history, Blacks were unable to find justice under the rule of law.  Black on Black crime was largely ignored, White on Black crime was often condoned, and even the mere allegation of a Black on White crime was often enough to result in the death of the Black individual even if they could affirmatively prove their innocence.  To defend themselves, Blacks needed different social institutions which they could rely on.  Gangs are one of those institutions.

While we often hear talk of “random gang violence,” the reality is that most gang violence is anything but random.  Gang violence is often used as a means to enforce social norms both within a gang and between competing rival gangs.  When one gang infringes on another gang’s territory, the infingers are forcibly removed in a way that is conceptually similar to how a shop owner might evict a trespasser with the assistance of the police.  Gangs, in a sense, are their own police force, providing a useful service to Blacks who historically could not count on the actual police for their safety or security.

Gangs, however, are much more than mere Black constables.  Gangs are a society unto themselves, complete with social roles, taboos, mores, privileges, and responsibilities for their members.  Gangs provide their members with criteria for inclusion and a definition of success which, for many, is powerful and compelling, although it is frequently not the definition of success that is promoted by civil society.  Many Black youth who grow up in and around gangs become socialized according to gang culture, and come to view their successes and failures based on the rules of the gang.  This can, and does, become a generational heritage, in much the same way that children of veterans, who grow up in a military-oriented household, often join the military themselves.

Gang membership among the Black community may be one of the most violent lasting responses to the pervasive racism that gripped America until the late 1960s.  Today, gang membership remains a powerful aspect of identity which will not be eliminated by tougher law enforcement.  It was, after all, aggressive police action which drove many Blacks to join gangs in the first place.


Edwin Henderson and the Freedom to Play

   Posted by: Robert Tags:

Among the names not discussed in any history course I’ve ever heard of is the name of Edwin Henderson.  Born in 1883, Mr. Henderson would stake his claim to fame in 1904 when he laid the groundwork for what would become the modern NBA.

Mr. Henderson, who would come to be known as the “Grandfather of Black Basketball,” first learned of the sport in a training camp for gym teachers at Harvard University.  He learned of the game from Dr. Dudley Sargent who, at the time, was involved in the promotion of athletics as a means to improve the body, mind, and spirit.  Still a relatively new sport, basketball had not yet gained a particularly large following among members of any racial demographic.  Seeing an opportunity to provide a vehicle for Black achievement, Mr. Henderson brought basketball back to his students and organized some of the first teams at his YMCA.

Basketball was not immediately successful among Mr. Henderson’s Black students.  Used to more rough and tumble sports like football, many of his students saw basketball as a “sissy” game, lumped into roughly the same category as tennis.  Indeed, white players at the time played basketball quite conservatively, even discouraging feats of great athleticism as selfish exhibitionism.  Despite an initial lack of enthusiasm, Mr. Henderson persisted in promoting basketball as both an excellent physical activity and as a way in which Black men could prove themselves equal to whites in a field of competition not so heavily smothered by overt and structural racism.

His persistence paid off.  In a mere twenty years, the New York Renaissance would be founded and begin a historic journey as one of the most victorious basketball teams in history.  The Rens, as they were called, came to be most well known for an ongoing rivalry with the Original Celtics, an all white basketball team from New York, which would ensure their eventual induction into the Hall of Fame.  Closer to home, Black youth began picking up the game in greater numbers and finding success in courts everywhere from youth leagues all the way up to professional play.  The Black style of edgier and more athletic play proved quite successful both on the court and as a way to market basketball to audiences interested in watching the game for entertainment.  Today, that style of play dominates basketball at the highest levels.

Just as Blacks have made lasting changes to the game of basketball, so too has basketball had a significant impact on Black culture.  As Mr. Henderson had hoped, basketball (and athletics more generally) has become an avenue of success for Black youth who find relatively few barriers so long as they have the requisite level of skill for the league in which they desire to play.  Many Black boys, perhaps even most, dream at some point in their lives of playing professional basketball, regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.

While few Blacks will realize those dreams, basketball is, nevertheless, a vehicle of empowerment for Black children and adolescents.  Basketball teaches important life skills in sportsmanship and teamwork.  More importantly, it teaches a direct link from individual effort and dedication to success.  Many Black students each year earn scholarships for their skill on the court — collegiate basketball is roughly 60% Black — and access to educational opportunities they may never have otherwise had.

Basketball was never invented to be a Black sport; it was invented by whites, for whites, just like most of the other sports Americans play.  Basketball was never a sport given to Blacks; racism was pervasive both on the court and off.  Basketball was taken by Edwin Henderson and given to Black men, who learned to play and found themselves to be quite good.  Basketball today is a testament to the influence of Blacks, of their skill and prowess, and of their ability to succeed in an important way.

Basketball needs to be one of the stories in our history books.  Everyone should know about Edwin Henderson, the Rens, and the triumph of Black Basketball.


Filling the Gaps of History

   Posted by: Robert

When I was in elementary school, I think it might have been third grade, my social studies lessons about the past that year came under a curious heading: “His Story”  Although I can remember nothing else that I specifically learned that year (including, with certainty, the year in which I learned it), that reverse-portmanteau of the word “History” has stayed with me throughout the years.  It neatly encapsulates the way that we, as humans, learn about and associate with the world of days gone bye.  While the focus may be on learning names, dates, and places, what we are ultimately doing is learning a story about our past.  Because history is so vast and our ability to learn about it so limited, the stories we learn are necessarily abridged by the storyteller and packaged in a way that we can understand.  What gets said and what doesn’t shapes the story, making each accounting of history both unique and incomplete — it is his story, which differs from her story, which differs from their story over there.

The differences between histories can be large or subtle, depending on the biases of the storyteller and the purpose of the tale.  In schools, we hope for objective biases that are based on a broad agreement about what is and isn’t important for students to learn as Americans.  In reality, history in schools is like history most anywhere else; it tends to be written by the “winners.”  Of particular relevance to Black history, most of our history curriculum was developed by the dominant white culture, with little attention paid to the presence or role of minority cultures outside of specific fragments of American history.

A historical narrative is a powerful tool for defining and explaining a culture.  As I have written previously, the conservative versus the liberal narrative is an important, though often overlooked, conflict between those political ideologies.  The liberal narrative of greater equality guaranteed by greater government currently holds a distinct advantage over the conservative narrative of unlimited opportunities for anyone who works hard enough.  Blacks seem to not believe in the conservative narrative, and it needs to be asked if they have a reason to see themselves within that narrative at all.

Based on the history that I learned in school, Blacks have always been at the mercy of some oppressor or other.  First, it was the slave traders who brought them from Africa (where, as we learn, many of them were already slaves).  From there it was the American slave owners who subjugated them and forced them to labor in poor conditions for no pay.  After the Civil War, it was the landowners (former plantation owners) who would continue to dominate Blacks by allowing them only enough income to survive.  As industrialization replaced agriculture, Jim Crow laws and Klan violence continued the trend of oppression.  Even today, after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Blacks continue to suffer under a system which rewards privilege that they do not have.

It’s hard to see opportunity from hard work within the confines of that story.

However, as well known and factual as that narrative is, it tends to omit or gloss over the remarkable things that Black people have done in spite of having spent so much time with the deck stacked against them.  All of the most well known champions of Black civil rights — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and pretty much everyone in the 1960s — were Black.  After the Civil War, some Blacks were successful in developing farming cooperatives to achieve a level of independence which laws and practices, particularly in the South, conspired to prevent.  Blacks have fought, voluntarily and with honor, in every American war including the Revolution.  Blacks have been successful as inventors, business leaders, scientists, lawyers, and politicians at every level of government.

The Black leaders who kicked open the doors of access to positions of greater honor and distinction all did so not on the basis of government handouts, but on the strength of their character and individual achievements.  Indeed, many fought the government — and won — in order to accomplish everything that they did.

It’s impossible to tell a coherent story about Black empowerment when nobody bothers to tell, in context, the stories of Black success.  I have no doubt that many of those stories touch at the heart of conservative principles and would, if told, encourage Blacks to continue as individuals to strive for success despite the significant challenges which remain in their way.  Building a consciousness about the story of Black empowerment could help conservatives in the Black community by showing Blacks their own history within the framework of the conservative narrative.


Black History Month

   Posted by: Robert Tags: ,

Across the country, as many schoolchildren and their parents are likely aware, February is Black History Month.  Started during the 1970s as an expansion of the former Black History Week, Black History Month is an opportunity used by schools to emphasize the contributions made by Blacks to the progress of American history.  As an opportunity to point out that Blacks have been involved throughout American history, Black History Month has proven itself to be at least marginally sufficient.  However, Black History Month misses the mark when it comes to showcasing the presence and importance of Black Americans in a way which is salient, long lasting, and fundamentally enriching to the lives of American students.

The evolution of Black History Month came out of a realization that Black history was consistently and systematically ignored by American historians.  Creation of the original Negro History Week, which would later become Black History Month, is credited to Carter Woodson, a professor of history and eventual dean of what today is Virginia State University. Dr. Woodson felt that a particular emphasis needed to be placed on teaching Black history, which at the time was seldom, if ever, part of the curriculum anywhere in America.  Indeed, Dr. Woodson noted that history would, at times, even be rewritten to exclude Blacks from the story of America’s past.  His hope was to overcome “the logical result of tradition, the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind.”

Now 90 years later, it’s hard to measure Dr. Woodson’s success to any level of certainty.  By and large, Black history is still not taught as an integrated part of the American story during the remaining eleven months of the year.  Outside Black History Month, the only inclusion of Blacks that I can remember being part of my history curriculum were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and a few random mentions that Blacks occasionally did things other than be slaves up until the start of the Civil Rights movement.  Blacks were, of course, discussed as part of the Civil Rights movement — it would be impossible not to — including the mention of a number of Black  leaders.  Blacks disappeared again after the Civil Rights movement, although I imagine Barack Obama earns at least a mention in most classrooms today.

Black History Month itself seems to be something of a farce as far as actual history education is concerned.  Structured more along the lines of what one would expect of something called Black Trivia Month, my memories of Black History Month include mentions of a number of Black inventors, explorers, and scientists whose work remains valuable in today’s world.  Unlike the rest of my history education, which proceeded in roughly chronological order, my Black history education was set outside the curriculum timeline as a sort of encapsulated module which I would enter and from which I would emerge a month later in exactly the same place as where I began.  Nothing I learned was particularly inspiring, none of it made me want to learn more about Blacks, and most of it lacked any amount of context which would make it meaningful or memorable as part of a broader education.  Indeed, the only thing I remember from Black History Month is the fact that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter.

While the spreadable substance that goes great with jelly has had a significant impact on lunch boxes across America, I can’t help but feel that the importance of that memory rather misses a broader point.  Despite what Dr. Woodson may have hoped, Black history remains segregated from American history, and the separation is no more equal than the drinking fountains of yore.  Worse still, it seems that there are very few people who are even interested in having that conversation and there are no major proposals that I can remember for fully integrating Black history into the rest of the curriculum.  This is an area with an absence of leadership, but where a leader could likely make swift and decisive strides.

Black History Month needs to be about more than just history.  Blacks have been part of the story of America from the very first day and they will continue to be an important part of the American story long into the future.  This month should be a time to reflect on the place of Blacks in our history and in our society today.  It should be a time to talk about why we never learn the whole story of the founding and growth of our nation.

It’s time to fix the lingering inequities of our textbooks and rediscover the lost history of a third of our fellow Americans.  That is, after all, what Black History Month is all about.

The American family has been under attack by the federal government for nearly a century.  As has been well understood throughout history, strong families provide an essential role in caring for the old, the young, the injured, and the infirm.  Families are one of the first targets of governments which seek to amass greater power or breed a culture of dependency within a population.  In America, commentators have frequently derided Welfare as being an assault on the American family which encourages having children out of wedlock, discourages marriage and fatherhood, and locks people into a system of dependence on government for their survival.  However, the assault on the American family actually goes back much farther.  It begins at least by 1935, with the passage of the Social Security Act.

In order to understand how Social Security injures families, it’s important to first understand what Social Security does.  Enacted as part of FDR’s New Deal, the SSA was passed with the intent to provide support to the elderly who may have run into difficulty during the harsh economic climate of the Great Depression.  Like private pension programs, Social Security pays older people to not work, which has the effect of ejecting many of them from the workforce regardless of their physical or mental capabilities to continue working.  Social Security is financed by a tax on working individuals who are thus compelled to subsidize the retirement of the elderly.

Traditionally, care for the elderly after the end of their productive lives had been regarded as the responsibility of their children.  For the first time in history, the SSA injected the federal government directly into the business of elder care on a massive, nationwide scale.  By providing money directly to elderly individuals, the children became less important in their care.  What’s more, by distancing the elderly from their working children, the needs of the elderly have become less well understood among younger generations, forcing the elderly to advocate for themselves without the full and understanding support of their families.  The elderly are thus encouraged to look outside of their families for support and, in particular, to look for the government for assistance as they seek to live “independent” lives.

Social Security has also changed the role of the elderly in society in ways that impact the family unit.  The elderly are now encouraged to retire at or before the start of their Social Security eligibility, which is increasingly coming at a time before the end of their productive lives.  The result is an increasing number of “fixed income” earners who may need to look to their families for support if, for whatever reason, their income level isn’t sufficient to meet their financial needs.  This presents a different sort of strain on the family than traditional elder care because of tension in the belief that the elderly individuals could earn money from working if they wanted to; and the strain would be particularly acute if the financial distress came from unnecessary expenses such as trips or costly purchases.  What’s more, because Social Security has weakened the expectation that children are expected to care for their parents in old age, the children are more likely to balk at discovering that they need to be supportive.  Extended retirement can be a wedge between an elderly parent and an adult child which serves neither party very well.

Finally, concerns over the continued viability of Social Security have become an additional wedge between the elderly and the working age population.  For those at or near the retirement age, there is a strong incentive to ensure that no changes are made to their expected benefits.  For those at or near the start of their career, the payroll taxes used to fund Social Security are expected to be dead loss, as the program will likely be bankrupt by the time they reach retirement age unless major structural changes are made to the program.  The result is a tension between the young and the old in which, because the older generations are more established in political and social life, the elderly have the upper hand.

While it is true that there has always been a tension between the needs of the elderly compared to the willingness or ability of their children to provide for them, the fight in the Social Security context is one over rigid legal obligations versus fluid negotiations between individuals with a personal relationship.  As in everything, rules which must apply to an entire society cannot possibly take account of every personal situation.  Worse still, parents need not work as hard to cultivate positive relationships with their children for the sake of future care when they know that their children will be forced to support them in any case.  While it is a sad thing indeed to think that a family might be held together by a parent’s expected need for elder care from their children, it is still one thread in the great tapestry of family relations which, if severed, may sometimes cause things to unravel.

Like with Welfare, Social Security restructures society to increase reliance on the government at the expense of the family.  Although the harms to the family which result from Social Security are weak, and although the programs stops well short of encouraging the destruction of families, it nevertheless increases the distance between parents and their children.  Perhaps most importantly, Social Security was the first major government program to intrude so directly on the traditional role of the family; it has served and continues to serve as the basis for many more government programs which have significantly eroded the freedom and independence of Americans.