Talk of Changes

Prompted by the protest, ideas for needed changes are being talked about, written about and thought about. Here are three examples.

The NYT has been running a series called The America We Need. In that vein, a recent editorial by David Leonhardt addressed new research documenting the wage gap between blacks and whites since the gap is as large now as it was in the 50’s during segregation. Several ideas are being put forth by economists and others: Raising the pay for all working families, asking the wealthy to let go of legacy college admissions and favorable tax treatment, which among other things increase inequality, or even adopt profit sharing plans.

The Chamber of Commerce which has become a powerful conservative lobbying group, has published a report on the opportunities gap that hinders black Americans. It highlights that for blacks unemployment is twice that of whites. Blacks represent 12% of US workers but only 9% of business owners and have a much harder time obtaining financing. The Chamber has held events trying to find solutions.

Meanwhile the BBC carried a piece by Tara Westover where she calls attention to the changes needed to build a world where we can be one people, she talks about how Covid-19 has affected minorities disproportionately and asks us to rethink changes in education, so that we can end up in a world where class, education and profession do not divide us.

It’s hard to know what the results will be but it’s encouraging that talk of changes is coming from many different sources.

Colonial Art Thefts

Racism is not only a problem in the US, the restitution of art to former colonies in Africa reminds us it’s been widespread for centuries.  African art and treasures have ended up in European museums for many to visit and enjoy, but the problem is how they got there, through armed pillage, military expeditions, missionary collections or taken without sufficient compensation. Colonial powers had not much respect for the indigenous traditions and cultures they encountered, nevertheless they managed to realize the importance and unique beauty of the art, art which we now know inspired artists such as Picasso and Matissse.  Unlike Western art African art is part and parcel of the culture and of everyday life, masks were not ornamental, for example, but part of important ritual practices. In November 2018 France’s President asked for a report on the restitution of African Art, but since there has been no movement to follow through on the recommendations or to return the art. Both France and the UK, the two major colonial powers in the continent have done little to address the resistance returning these pieces has engendered. It’s a legal issue, a political and cultural one, but it’s also a moral and an ethical one. Part of the problem is that often museums themselves fear that restitution would deplete their collection, which considering they only exhibit a portion of it at a time may not be valid.  Another contributing factor is that African nations do not always have the necessary museums, which they are trying to remedy. Unchanged racist attitudes have made the debate contentious, nevertheless African Art pieces not properly acquired need to be returned.

Incarceration In The US

The US has the highest per capita prison rate and the highest prison population in the world. The US represents 5% of the world’s population but 25% of those incarcerated worldwide. Russia and Ukraine follow. These are meaningful figures in light of the protests asking for police reform. And what is even more meaningful are the facts of incarceration from the NAACP showing how incarceration disproportionately affects people of color. Here is a sample:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites.
  • African Americans and Hispanics which comprise 32% of the population comprise 56% of incarcerated people.
  • If they were incarcerated at the same rate as whites prison population would decline by almost 40%.
  • While African Americans and whites use drugs at about the same rates, imprisonment of African Americans for drug charges is about 6 times that of whites.

Those facts speak for systemic racism, they speak for an overhaul of not only our police but the entire criminal justice system.

Beyond Our Current Problems

I woke up one morning as many surely do with a heavy heart—the persistence of racial injustice, a mismanaged pandemic and an administration which systematically depreciates and debases democratic institutions. Then as I do every day, I looked at my email and the newsletters it contains. I learned that 81% of people in Malawi are more concerned about hunger than they are about getting the virus. In Venezuela, hearses with coffins had to stop in the middle of streets, having run out of gas which is now in very short supply. There too fear of being infected is second to hunger. In Yemen and Syria to name but two, the ruination of the countries economically and politically makes it near impossible to be able to have any kind of normalcy.  And then I realized that not since the civil rights movement has there been so much commitment and awareness to resolve racial injustice, that a vaccine, at least one, will be found and we shall be able to live more safely again, that we will eventually be rid of this administration and even if the country is in tatters by then (as it surely will) we shall still be standing. And I realized one more thing that the problems of the US will end up far more easily resolved than those of Malawi, Venezuela, Yemen or Syria.  That said, my heart is still heavy for those millions suffering unjustly.