Tag Archives: native americans

Whitewashing History at the Democratic National Convention

18 Sep

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the word whitewash as,

to gloss over or cover up (as vices or crimes), or

to exonerate by means of a perfunctory investigation or through biased presentation of data.  

I got to thinking about whitewash, and whitewashing history in particular, during the Democratic National Convention. At the convention, a whole lot of whitewash was slopped around.
But what got me writing was the recent news of a bump in the polls for U.S. Senate candidate, Elizabeth Warren. That bump is being attributed to her speech at that convention, and I remembered that speech as very good example of how politicians whitewash history in order to win political points with white voters.
Now, I’m not trying to pick a fight with Elizabeth Warren. She’s no worse, and probably a lot better, than most politicians of both major parties. But consider what she said –
I’m here tonight to talk about hard-working people: people who get up early, stay up late, cook dinner and help out with homework; people who can be counted on to help their kids, their parents, their neighbors, and the lady down the street whose car broke down; people who work their hearts out but are up against a hard truth—the game is rigged against them. It wasn’t always this way….

…I grew up in an America that invested in its kids and built a strong middle class; that allowed millions of children to rise from poverty and establish secure lives. An America that created Social Security and Medicare so that seniors could live with dignity; an America in which each generation built something solid so that the next generation could build something better..

You and I both know that not everyone was able to participate equally in those programs and opportunities. But to hear Warren and other leaders of both parties talk about this rose colored past, approximately the period from 1934 to the mid 1960s, you’d think fairness was the cardinal American value of the time.

But of course they do know better. Elizabeth Warren was born in 1949. That means she was about 16 years old when Jim Crow laws were finally defeated.

Jim Crow laws, for those unfamiliar, started being established just 11 years after the end of the Civil War. They were created for the purpose of upholding white supremacy and, following the logic of slavery, ensuring a ready pool of Black workers who were cheap to hire because they were denied access to government assistance and unprotected by the law.

Elizabeth Warren was also born in Oklahoma, a state that kept its public schools segregated until 1955, when Warren would have been about 6.

Oklahoma was also the final destination for Native Americans subject to forced relocation as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The path by which Native Americans were forced to relocate is known as the Trail of Tears, in part because so many died along the way, including 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation, a group I assume Warren knows something about.

The game, as Warren refers to it, was always rigged, and to the advantage of white people, especially white men. The great middle class she speaks of is largely a white phenomena, created in part via benefits of the GI Bill, a program that helped provide educations and home ownership opportunities to veterans, but that discriminated against some veterans by race.

Home ownership was a great boon to the white middle class, but even those GIs of color who were able to get mortgage assistance through the Bill faced red lining and restrictive covenants that limited opportunities to buy homes to the poorest neighborhoods. Education is a key to social mobility, but educational opportunity was denied to many vets of color, in spite of their service, and those that did go to school were often forced into separate and unequal institutions.

Social programs like Mothers’ Aid, established in the 1930s (and that eventually evolved into welfare as we now know it) helped many poor women and children rise out of poverty. But many women of color, especially in the South, were denied benefits under this program and its later iterations because they were considered valuable only as workers, not as mothers.

And these are just a few examples. The legacy of racial exclusion from these opportunities continues to this day. It’s time for those of us left out of this grand history of America to speak up. If we don’t, we may in fact return to that whitewashed past.

Not resolved

24 Aug

My last post describing the invisibility of Native Americans in media as a logical extension of our history of U.S. anti-Indian policy needed an exclamation point. I thought more needed to be said about how the idea of Native Americans as disappearing reinforces the notion that the relationship between the U.S. and Native nations is a settled matter, or at least a matter beyond the reach of justice.

Matters aren’t settled. In fact, to consider the matter resolved, if not justly, then at least irrevocably, is one of the ways in which racism against Native Americans (and Native Hawaiians) is expressed most forcefully. Yes, there are denigrating caricatures everywhere and racist slurs and stereotypes galore, but, in my humble opinion, none are as effective in stalling justice as the false notion that the conflict between the U.S. and Native peoples is uneasily but nonetheless finally settled. That even if we acknowledge injustice, reaching a more just settlement is unrealistic, you can’t turn back time.

How unsettled is this matter? I’m no expert, but I have a few stories to share.

As a program officer of a foundation out west, I often visited groups on Indian reservations. On a visit to one group in Montana, I learned that sewage moved through parts of the community in open ditches. People were so poor, they spent each summer in a race to pay off heating bills accumulated over the winter so that they could avoid freezing to death in the next one. The Indian Health Service office was inadequately staffed and so remote that many couldn’t afford the trip.

I found them after driving miles without seeing a single building. As I toured their facility, I became keenly aware of how powerfully problems of isolation are compounded by poverty.

But in spite of having so little, it was absolutely clear to me that the group was having a measurable, positive impact on the community. It wasn’t enough to rectify problems that have persisted for generations, but it was a little miracle of ingenuity, commitment, and hard work nonetheless.

The biggest obstacle to doing better is not a weakness of the leaders. It is the combination of raw deals, dirty crooks, and government neglect of our end of the bargains struck in treaty agreements, not to mention the poor land they have been forced to settle with, and many other injustices. In fact, year after year, the injustices pile up so high that people who suffer from them, no matter how determined, cannot hope to shovel them out of the way alone.

They need help.

In Wyoming, I visited a group working for environmental justice. At the time, their primary goal was the return of their water rights – rights without which the eco-system of the reservation, necessary to the sustenance of the people who reside there, will be destroyed. They’d taken their case to court and lost. The judge held up the rights of white farmers to divert water that would have run through the reservation, declaring that the issue of water rights was long ago decided in a war that “we” won.

Since then, that group has scored a major victory over methane mining on the reservation. They continue to score victories. But will they ever see real justice? That, again, depends on the rest of us.

I received a visit from a representative of the Chinook Indian Nation in Washington, a group that has been described in some reference books as “extinct.” She was seeking support for an effort to win back federal recognition of their tribe that was revoked by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2002, just ten years ago.

A hostile nation has stripped the Chinook people of their sovereignty. Regaining that recognition is necessary to their security and self-determination.

When you work for a foundation that provides funding to those most directly targeted by injustice to lead efforts to find solutions, you don’t often see the people in the communities you serve who are thriving. They exist, too.

But the struggles of Native Americans are real. Moreover, they have far reaching impact, including the creation of grossly unjust concentrations of wealth in the hands of very few people who in turn repress and exploit those of us without wealth in order to retain their riches. The impacts of the exploitation of Native peoples are all around us. They’re like the bars of a cage. If you haven’t noticed them, depending on who you are, it might just be because the downside of an unjust relationship is tough for those on the upside to see.  Our privilege obscures our view.

But whether we see the bars or not, the cage is there, and addressing the situation of Native peoples is necessary to setting ourselves free of it.

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