Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Privilege of My Whiteness

My nephew just got married in Boston. The celebration was beautiful, and I especially liked hearing all his relatives, old and new, saying how much they appreciated our coming from “so fah away”. You can hear a Bostonian a mile away.

I am a New Yorker. Everywhere I have lived in the United States, people nod their heads when I say I’m from New York. I don’t say “New Yawk” or talk like Jerry Seinfeld and his friends, but I guess regional identities go much deeper than that.

I’m Jewish. That puts me in a distinct minority nearly everywhere I go, except in synagogue and at some of my friends’ children’s weddings. In this part of the rural Midwest, Jews are more noticeable than where I grew up, or even in Maine, where I have lived the longest.

But more than any of these characteristics, I am white. Before anyone I meet learns about my regional origins, religion, education, or personality, my white skin is apparent, even if I rarely think about it.

When I walk down a city street or into a store, when I stand in front of a class or an audience, when my photo appears next to my name online, I am obviously white. In America, that mainly means not black. We whites don’t usually think about our whiteness, because it has been defined as the American norm. When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” he meant white men. Two centuries later, as I was growing up, any deviation from whiteness was still exceptional in every position of authority, wealth, and status.

Whiteness was not just the American norm, it was an American privilege. White skin was a universal passport into businesses, restaurants, clubs, universities, and neighborhoods. Black skin was a handicap. Not only in the South, but in towns like Jacksonville all across the US, barriers were constructed to keep black skin out. Golf clubs and banks, college admissions departments and restaurant owners and real estate agents accorded white skin the privilege of respectful treatment and black skin the handicap of refusal.

Because whites were the great majority, most barely noticed that they enjoyed the privilege of decent human treatment. Blacks couldn’t help but notice their handicap.

That contrast of privilege and handicap continues today. When Oprah was told by a Swiss sales clerk that she couldn’t afford an expensive handbag, it made worldwide headlines, but more serious incidents happen every day to ordinary people of color. Earlier this year black Illinois College students were falsely accused of shoplifting by a clerk with color on her mind.

The so-called “stop and frisk” policy of the New York City Police Department, in which pedestrians were stopped by police officers only on the basis that they looked suspicious, was declared illegal by a federal judge last year, because of its racial implementation: of the nearly 700,000 people stopped in 2011, 84% were black or Latino. The NY Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told state legislators that blacks and Latinos were purposely targeted “to instill fear in them” that they could be stopped by police any time they left their homes.

The dangers of driving while black are not exaggerated. The Kansas City police were three times more likely to stop a black driver for “investigation”, not traffic safety, than a white driver, and five times more likely to search their car.

I have been thinking a lot about my whiteness lately. The Illinois College campus is suddenly much more diverse, because the first-year class is one-third minorities. There are African and African American students in my small class on political writing. My department is searching for a specialist in African American history, which has never been taught at IC before. There is no reason to believe that black people see these encounters with me in the same way I do.

The privilege of having white skin in America is that I will be treated as any person should be treated: with respect. I am not assumed to be deviant or dangerous, to be a criminal or a drug addict. That’s a privilege that can easily be forgotten. It takes a trip to China to remind me what it is like to be considered weird just because of the way I look. Outside of a few cities like Shanghai or Beijing, white people are rare in China, and the Chinese have no social prohibitions on staring. It can be unnerving to have everyone you encounter on a busy street turn and stare, to have bicyclists crane their necks to look at you, to have drivers risk accidents to get a better view.

But that’s still not enough to fully understand how blacks continue to be treated in America. The Chinese are not hostile, just curious. The police don’t stop me. Nobody fears me because of my skin color.

My white skin is an unearned privilege, one which I hope eventually disappears.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 25, 2014

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Talking with another American

I met Jim Watson at the grocery store. Watson served in the Illinois House of Representatives from my district for 11 years, 2001-2012. I don’t think he’ll mind if I describe our conversation.

He laughed when he told me that he didn’t agree with most of what I write every week. Yet he and I are more alike than he might think, besides being two men food shopping on a Sunday morning. We agree that family is center of life, that we want to make life better in the place we live, and that we believe America can be a better nation. We disagree about exactly what better means and about what to do next.

Jim laughed even more when I asked him what he was doing now. He said I would hate his work: he is executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council, which describes itself as representing “the institutional interests of Illinois’ large integrated oil companies”. His job is to maintain good relations with governments, in Springfield and in Washington, that is, to lobby. But he demonstrated the congruence of our interests by bringing up the petcoke mountains which have recently spread black dust in Chicago neighborhoods. He thinks what I think – they need to be taken care of. That means his employers need to do something different.

I don’t hate his work. I don’t agree with Watson’s public arguments that this is all just normal business. His job is protect the interests of and thus keep costs down for petcoke producers. But he recognizes the problems they cause. Exactly what to do and how soon are certainly more subjects Jim and I disagree on.

Jim Watson and I agreed on one fundamental idea: we could talk together. He takes seriously ideas that he doesn’t share. I believe Jim implied that something I wrote stays with him and affects his thinking today. That’s something every writer wants to hear, which is why I express some uncertainty. Maybe I was just dreaming.

But I wasn’t dreaming about our interaction. It was friendly and open, accepting of our disagreements, and we eventually found a place where we could agree and shake hands warmly. There shouldn’t be anything noteworthy about that, but in today’s politics it is no longer the norm.

The new normal, at least for conservative Republicans, is to argue that liberals are hateful traitors, that our President is a foreign socialist Muslim, that a government in the hands of Democrats should be shut down.

Barack Obama is a middle-of-the-road Democrat. You can tell by the opposition to every one of his major policies from within the Democratic Party. The more liberal wing criticizes him for not having pushed a national health care system, for spying on Americans, for being too slow about gay rights. More conservative Democrats want him to reduce regulations and balance the budget. The Affordable Care Act is no more radical than Bill Clinton’s proposals, and Clinton was most definitely a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Yet Obama has been treated to unprecedented vilification by leading Republicans, and especially by Tea Party members.

The uncompromising right wing does not attack only Democrats. Republicans like Jim Watson are reviled as Republicans In Name Only by the new angry conservatives. The raging Americans who have gathered under the banners of the Tea Party attack politicians more conservative than Jim Watson. Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Thad Cochran of Mississippi are being challenged by even more conservative Tea Party candidates, who criticize them for every inch they have budged from rigid obstructionism in Congress.

These self-identified real Republicans can’t talk with anyone who doesn’t totally agree with them. You can see in their media rants, in their online comments, in their books and articles how unable they are to have a normal conversation, to listen to people with whom they disagree, to learn anything more about anything. Nothing changes their angry minds.

Parties of anger are dangerous. We saw that in the 1960s, when angry white political establishments used government authority to justify violence against people and their political formations they hated.

There hung a lesson – the marchers and protesters and strikers were right. Segregation was wrong, discrimination was wrong, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, Governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace, Birmingham’s police chief Bull Connor were all wrong. Their fury at those who wanted equal rights blinded them to human truths.

Today’s angry Americans and the radical politicians they vote for are also wrong. Not because of their political principles, but because they won’t listen to those with other ideas, won’t accept facts they don’t like, won’t treat political opponents with respect. If they can’t talk with the great majority of Americans who don’t share their ideas, how could they possibly govern us, except with violence?

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 11, 2014

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tough Luck for Small Business

Seems like it’s a great time to be a small business. Nearly everybody says they support small business. President Obama praised small businesses three times in his State of the Union speech. He singled out one small business owner of eight pizza parlors in Minneapolis. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington mentioned small business once in her official Republican response. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who offered the official Tea Party response, said nothing about small business. But certainly none of them praised big business.

The trouble is that rhetoric pays no bills. Private lenders have favored big business lately. Private sector lending to small businesses declined 10%, while loans over $1,000,000 to large businesses increased about 18%.

The government has been more helpful. Although Republicans see themselves as much more friendly to business than Democrats, virtually all of them in both the House and Senate voted against the Small Business Jobs Act in 2010, which greatly increased government lending to small businesses. The amount of money lent by the federal Small Business Administration is 25% larger under Barack Obama than under George Bush.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a small business. Like all unique eateries, Mom and Pop groceries, and other locally owned small businesses, BJ’s Restaurant in Jacksonville struggles against the industrial giants. The biggest American companies get the most benefits from the government. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think thank, estimated annual corporate welfare from the government to be near $100 billion, dwarfing the SBA loans. Estimates from elsewhere on the political spectrum are similar. Billions go to fossil fuel giants, but when President Obama suggested in the State of the Union address that these be trimmed, he got a stony reaction from Republicans.

It’s not just the fault of the politicians, who talk a good small business game, but put their hands out at corporate headquarters, and then direct government aid right back to their donors. American consumers have also chosen to spend their bucks at the sign of commercial icons, the stars of TV commercials paid for by enormous profits.

BJ’s is slower and more expensive than they are. The food is not all pre-prepared, packaged, frozen and shipped across the country. The cook actually knows how to cook, not just heat up. The waitresses take time to shoot the breeze with the customers. Somebody has to go out locally to buy the napkins. The 20th-century American family has instead chosen manufactured foods that arrive fast, at the end of an enormous assembly line stretching across continents and oceans.

What would happen if politicians really decided to help small business? They might decide to raise the minimum wage. That wouldn’t cost BJ’s much, nor would it have a big effect on truly small business. Raising the minimum wage would increase costs for the biggest businesses, the ones putting the smallest businesses out of business by paying millions of workers less than a living wage. Two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are employed by enterprises with over 100 workers. The biggest employers of minimum-wage workers are Walmart, McDonalds, and Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC), also the biggest competitors for small businesses.

Raising the minimum wage would also help cut the federal welfare budget. The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and thus declined one third in buying value since 1968. During that period the average pay for CEO’s has multiplied 7 times. Imagine the perfect conservative family: a father earning minimum wage while a mother stays at home with two kids. That family qualifies for tax-supported welfare, like many less traditional families in these United States, because their income would be only two-thirds of the federal poverty threshold. Raising their family wages to $10.10 a hour, as President Obama has suggested, would just bring back the buying power of the minimum wage when Richard Nixon was President. But now their income would rise nearer to the poverty threshold, thus significantly cutting their need for federal assistance.

In fact, raising the minimum wage would help Republican states more than Democratic states. Of the 10 states with the highest percentages of low wage workers, seven are dominated by Republicans, two more have Republican controlled legislatures, and one (Virginia) has no dominant party.

So why do Republican politicians want to keep the minimum wage at historically low levels? Ask their big donors.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 4, 2014