Sunday, January 31, 2010

Howard Zinn

Reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was a revelation for me. I had been brought up to believe, as most Americans are, that "our nation is the greatest country that has ever been and that ever will be. We are a force for good and have never done evil." All those beliefs were shattered as I read Mr. Zinn's expose of some of the hidden truths of American history.

Mr Zinn died this week and there wasn't much notice taken in the media. He was a "radical" after all, outside the mainstream so not worthy of much attention.

Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a moving tribute to him, “A Radical Treasure”:

I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?

Mr. Zinn was often taken to task for peeling back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long. When writing about Andrew Jackson in his most famous book, “A People’s History of the United States,” published in 1980, Mr. Zinn said: “If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.”

Radical? Hardly.

If you'd like to see a film that tells you a lot about Howard Zinn, watch "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train," by Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller.

2010 Census: My race is human

Earlier this month there was a bit of an uproar about the inclusion of the word “Negro” on the 2010 U.S. Census. My response: start a movement where everyone checks “other” on their Census form and writes in “human.” Maybe it’s time to drop all this ridiculousness about there being anything real that distinguishes human beings from each other. Race is a completely fabricated way of separating people.

Recent research in population genetics has shown that only 50,000 years ago the entire population of Homo sapiens was 2,000 (see “The Human Family”). We are just one large extended family.

What does it mean to be African-American for example? As I wrote in an article about Barack Obama in the summer of 2008, why is someone like Obama considered black? He is as much white as he is black. As Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post, it’s the one-percent rule: “…American society enforced the ‘one-drop’ rule: If you had any African blood at all, you were black.”

What is the purpose of dividing Americans by race in the Census anyway? Certainly there is still a need for affirmative action—I am not arguing against that by any means—but why do we need to know how many “Alaskan Natives” live in Buncombe County North Carolina?
I googled “racial categories us census” and found an interesting New York Times article from 2007, "On Race and the Census: Struggling With Categories That No Longer Apply," by Brent Staples :

Imagine the Census Bureau announcing that it would end the practice of asking people to identify themselves by race beginning in 2010. Black elected officials and their allies in the civil rights community would fight the proposal tooth and nail by arguing that racial statistics were necessary for enforcing civil rights laws — especially the Voting Rights Act —and that dropping race from the census would dilute black political strength. Enemies of affirmative action would jump for joy, believing that they had finally won.

But these antagonists aren’t the only factions in the fight. A growing number of demographers and historians who are fully sympathetic to the civil rights struggle would probably be happy to see the word “race” disappear from the census as well. There seems to be an emerging consensus that the system of racial classification that has dominated national politics and the census for nearly two centuries is so fraught with imprecision — and so tainted by racist ideas that have been disproved by science — that it should eventually be dropped altogether...

[T]he historian Margo Anderson writes that official statistics on “race” or “color” were inaugurated into the federal statistical system in the early 19th century. By then the government had embraced the view that people of African descent were from genetically inferior ancestral groups and could never escape subordinate status...

This period marked the rise of the so-called “one-drop rule” — which defined as black anyone with any African heritage at all. That often meant banishment from jobs, housing and public schools set aside for whites...

Indeed, the seemingly innocuous act of assigning people to “races” still sets them sociologically and biologically apart in a way that scientists and anthropologists have long since rejected.

The government Census website says it collects racial data because: “Information on race is required for many federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights. States use these data to meet legislative redistricting principles. Race data also are used to promote equal employment opportunities and to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.”

I could argue that using race for legislative redistricting principles has hurt the country as a whole and has hurt the minorities it's supposed to help.