Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Awareness of white privilege VS actually working to change it

A couple friends of mine are taking a class on being a "white ally" - race awareness and relations, power and privileged, and counteracting racism.

One of them mentioned to me some critical feedback she had offered and it got me to thinking in more detail what has always bothered me about those sort of discussions, but up until now never quite pinned down.

The following is not a commentary on that class in particular, as I know essentially nothing about it, but rather a critique of a few general ideas I have heard and read on the topic in the past:

1 There is no such thing as "people of color"
-The impact of past racism (including slavery) and present racism does not effect all races equally, nor all in the same way.
- A black american and a white american likely have more in common with each other than with a fresh-off-the-boat Vietnamese person. A white american whose family has been in the US for generations likely has more culture in common with a black american than with a first generation eastern european immigrant with whom they share skin color.
-The very term "people of color" encourages white people to think in terms of a false dichotomy of 'us' (all white people) and 'them' (everyone else). It not only homogenizes all other races, it also makes everyone not white into an "other".
-Lumping all non-white cultures into one category, while giving white an entire separate category in itself suggests a type of superiority.
-This dichotomy also discounts the existence of mixed race individuals (officially 2% of US society, but really much higher - most surveys, as well as society, force people to choose one identity, even if they are in fact mixed)

2 Historical racism is the single largest cause for modern black poverty, and poverty does generally correlate with crime. However no historical or sociological factors can excuse individual behavior. No matter what circumstances a person is born into, they have a choice about their own behavior. Apologizing for, ignoring, discounting, or explaining away black crime rates, drug rates, or general anti-social behavior (e.g. boombox on a crowded train) does nothing to increase equality, and does not bring less conscious white people about as allies.

3 Discrimination is explicitly illegal. Talking about "institutionalized" or "systemic" racism does not address the issues which are most relevant today. While there are still white supremacists in the US, their view has become as unacceptable in mainstream society as it once was only among civil-rights activists. The president of the US is 1/2 African. This does not mean that the conversation about race is over. However, it does mean it is time to change that conversation.

For example, talking about power hierarchies is mostly nonsensical today. If racism = racism + power (as is often claimed by race activists), this does not imply that only whites can be racist, because whites do not have any particular power over other races. There are minorities in the role of police officer, judge, congress person, boss, professor, etc. as well as whites in poverty, in jail, or otherwise powerless. If you ignore all individual circumstances and look only at the whole society, then no one can be racist, because society is no one person.

4 Rarely is it explicitly acknowledged how much - and in what way - individuals (primarily, but not exclusively, white) continue to benefit from past racism. This nation was taken by force from the American Indian, built largely by African slaves (as well as Asian indentured servants) and thanks largely to not only racism, but also inheritance and locally funded education, past disparities directly result in present disparities. Even if one's own ancestors never killed Indians or owned slaves, the mere fact of living in this country means you personally benefit from those who did.

5 Not all non-white people are poor. Not all white people are middle class or wealthy. Class and race are not interchangeable. To speak about them as if they were interchangeable represents a stereotype - it implies a universal truth based on a statistic. The implication itself is racist.
Replacing discussions of poverty, economics, and class with discussions of race is a tool those with power (white, yes, but a special subset of white people - wealthy conservatives) use to polarize the working class. They emphasize criminals and welfare recipients (read: blacks) or immigrants (read: hispanics) and leave unspoken as a given the unity between white Americans of different classes. This helps prevent what should be a natural alliance of the lower class against those who exploit them.

6 What keeps the racial status quo in our society is not a social issue, but rather an economic one.
What too few people talk about is the way in which the condition of one generation affects the next.
After slavery blacks were supposed to get land. This was not a hand-out, but merely a way to compensate, to allow them to begin to catch up. This never happened.
Since poverty is inherited just as surely as wealth, the only way to level the playing field short of paying reparations (with 145 years interest) today would be a strict inheritance tax on not only the wealthy, but the middle class. This would include not only cash, but things such as houses and family businesses.
The single largest factor in predicting an individuals success in life is their education. Pre-school is the best indicator of how well a child does in school. It will be impossible to ever have a equal society without universal, mandatory, publicly financed pre-school. Schools in America are funded 50% or more by local taxes. This system guarantees that schools in poor areas are underfunded and schools in wealthy areas have better resources and an easier time keeping good teachers. Locally funded public schools is an amazingly effective method of retaining the status quo, while appearing on the surface to be neutral and fair. To counteract generations of inherited poverty, ignorance, and a cultural mindset of being separate from society, America should be offering fully funded college for all low-income high-school graduates. And because poverty and ignorance are inherited no matter one's color, this should be extended to anyone who can't afford it.

Racism, in the sense of individual people with power holding stereotypes about a race and acting on that prejudice against individual members of said race, is a relatively small factor in modern America. Formally institutionalized racism is a thing of the past.
Were all of society, at all levels, to suddenly become "color blind", the trends set in motion hundreds of years ago would continue none-the-less. For this reason educating individuals about the existence of "white privilege" can not do much to change anything. If energy is going to be invested into change, it should be invested where it will do the most good.
Its one thing to be aware of culturally insensitive language. It is another all together to recognize that the economic system we take for granted perpetuates the impact of slavery, and that no matter how aware one is in their personal relationships, you directly benefit from the current system - and then work to change that system, even if it means undermining your own economic advantages.
This would mean advocating significant increases in middle class taxes, to fund more social programs. This would mean taking the time to counter the "tea-party" people, pointing out that true justice demands a redistribution of wealth. It would mean protesting to get colleges fees raised, in order to pay for scholarships. This would mean, instead of donating money / time / materials to your own children's school, donating that same time and money to the poorer district a few miles away.

Me personally, I have been called ni**er on more than one occasion. But (not counting by other black people who use it casually - that is whole different topic) it has been in each case by a meth addict (one disowned by her family, and the other evicted from a trailer park). These are people with no power, no influence. These are people so low on the social strata, all they have left to feel even mildly good about themselves is to find someone to hate, for any reason they can. As much as it roils the blood to hear it, they are harmless. The people and ideas that maintain the status quo - including associations of particular races with poverty, drug use, crime, etc - are not overtly racist; in fact, in most cases not even necessarily sub-consciously racist. Racism set up the status quo, but economics is what maintains it. Capitalism, the free market, individualism, and the republic system of government (as opposed to true democracy) all play a part in maintaining the present as it was in the past. If we want a just society, those are the things that we need to look at first.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Response to "Turning Hustlers into Entrepreneurs"

"Turning-Hustlers-into-Entrepreneurs" discusses the possibility of increasing micro-credit in order to support independent "black market" business people. As someone who has been running a successful off-the-books business for several years, I believe the major obstacle is not a lack of credit, but rather a government which is geared toward big business.
As the examples in the article illustrate, people are already doing what they are doing, without capital. What they lack is official legitimacy. Many entrepreneurs, such as myself, would love to "go legit", but it is not a realistic option.
I understand and support the idea that government regulate business to protect consumers. The problem is that government does not take the size of a business into account in the requirements it imposes on operating legally.

For example, a single guy with a pick-up truck doing local deliveries pays the exact same state license fee as a company with a fleet of semi trucks. The least insurance available to him is a million dollars of coverage with a 1-2 thousand dollar annual premium, even if he never comes close to transporting a million dollars worth of goods. Every city he works in requires its own separate business license. If he needs to hire a subcontractor on occasion, he needs to buy worker's comp insurance at a minimum, and possibly more. Being self-employed, he pays an additional tax (which an employer would otherwise cover). And of course by staying underground, he avoids paying any income tax on his business revenue.

All of this can easily add up to thousands of dollars. That sum may be inconsequential to a corporation with annual sales in the millions of dollars, but to a small independent, going legit would cost me about 20% of my entire net revenue, more than two months income.

The solution to this is not to finance small business to help them pay for theses fees - these fees are annual, and taking loans only increases risk. The solution is to have license fees proportional to net revenue, instead of being fixed amounts, requiring insurance companies to offer a full range of coverage options, including (potentially less profitable) low limit policies, and restructuring tax code so there isn't a penalty to being self-employed. Similarly, laws making it difficult or illegal to run certain types of business from home could be relaxed, (for example, allowing small scale retail in otherwise residential districts), eliminating the need for a dedicated store-front, a major on-going expense.

Reducing the government imposed costs of running an independent business legally would , without the additional risk incurred (for both the investor and the entrepreneur) by accepting loans or the costs incurred by providing grants. It would also increase tax revenue, by encouraging existing underground businesses to come above the radar and join the mainstream economy.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Global Warming Revisited

The following was a "letter to the editor" I submitted to a progressive magazine in response to articles on global warming:

In "American Psychosis" you point to the many people who acknowledge global warming, but do not change much, if anything about their destructive lifestyles, and in "Hot Air" talk about the point of view of skeptics and deniers.

I run a certified green hauling business. I modified my delivery truck to get 30mpg (from 15mpg) and run it on 100% biodiesel made from recycled veggie oil. I also work part time supporting people who bicycle to work (at a business which runs at a loss because our main service is free). I live in a 250square foot home and use less than $5 worth of electricity most months.
I also have some background in science, including degrees in earth science and biology, and generally track down sources for claims I read.

Having read arguments on both sides, I am not convinced that humans are significantly contributing to climate change. While I admit I haven't kept up with the latest research, I have yet to see several points addressed:

1 The climate naturally goes through cycles of extremes. The current climate reflects roughly where it is expected to be. Our methods of determining past temperatures are not precise enough to tell us the rate of change over small periods of time in the past, and so it is difficult to determine if what we see today is abnormal.
2 Geologic data suggests that in past periods of climate change, temperature has always changed first, with CO2 levels changing as a result of temperature change, not the other way around. This does not necessarily indicate it is what is happening this time, but it could account for what we are seeing.
3 Climate predictions are only as good as the models they are built on, which in turn are only as good as the computers that run them. We simply do not have computers powerful enough to accurately model something as complex as the earth's climate. Last I heard, in order to reduce complexity to a manageable level, most models omit details such as water vapor (arguably the single most important variable) all together.
4 Human caused climate change is frequently referred to (particularly in liberal media sources) as having "scientific consensus". According to Pew Research center 86% of scientists concur. While 86% is clearly an overwhelming majority in a democracy, in science 14% is too large a minority to simply ignore.

But here's the thing:
It doesn't make one bit of difference if humans are contributing to global warming or not.
Whether we are causing it or not, its happening (that doesn't take predictions, just measurements - its happening)
Therefor we should prepare for it.
Even more important: independent of global warming, our lifestyles are harming the ecology of our planet. Even if an individual feels no moral reason to care about life other than humanity, it is undeniable that we are totally dependent on the environment for our own survival.

Regardless of climate change, our driving and electricity generation cause air pollution, which in turn causes cancer, asthma, acid rain and many other air quality issues. Drilling for oil and mining for coal (or uranium) causes massive destruction - when things are running as they should - never mind the occasional catastrophic accident. Vehicle manufacture itself takes an enormous amount of raw material (as well as energy) all of which must be mined/refined/transported and which carries an ecological price tag. Auto accidents are the number one killer of all Americans below 40 and remains one of the top causes of death and injury at all ages. Their is evidence that the lack of exercise associated with driving is the number one factor in the obesity epidemic. The fact that we consume far more energy than we can produce domestically puts us at risk, both politically, economically, and militarily.

All of these problems would remain if we switched to electric (or fuel cell) cars. Most would remain even if we discovered cold-fusion or some other unlimited supply of cheap energy.
And of-course all would also remain if humanity decided to combat global warming with a grand geo-engineering project.

The exclusive focus on "human-caused climate change" makes it easy for people to write off environmentalism, because the science is not, in fact, conclusive (as of yet). It also encourages the idea of using technology to "solve" the issue, with potentially unintended consequences. And it completely ignores all of the other real, urgent, indisputable problems that our lifestyle has created.

Whether it turns out humans are accelerating climate change or not, our course of action needs to be the same:
One way or another, the earth will eventually get warmer, and people need to be ready to adapt.
One way or another, the American lifestyle is destructive and unsustainable, and we need desperately to downsize our extravagances: give up the car, stop flying, eat vegetarian / organic / local, cut electricity use, buy less stuff, shop locally (when buying is necessary), waste less water, and live in locales that are naturally hospitable to humans (i.e. not the desert)

We can either focus on gradually changing those things now, voluntarily, or we can ignore them and have them changed for us in the future, in which case the change will be very unpleasant, and likely include violence.
Addressing climate change does little to address any of those issues, and where it does it is only incidental.
While I understand the good intention behind keeping environmental issues on the forefront of everyone's minds, I believe that the single-minded focus on global warming is actually counter-productive - even if it does turn out to be true.