Why are we so mean?

On Thursday April 23, U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter granted a motion brought by the ACLU representing several detainees at the Adelanto Detention Center. The judge ordered that Adelanto not accept any new detainees; that they immediately reduce the immigrant population so that detainees can practice social distancing; that the facility complete the reduction in immigrant detainees within a week. This is, of course, happening in the context of the novel Coronavirus and the fear that any infection in the facility would sweep through the whole institution like a wildfire.

The judge in a prior ruling recognizing the detainees as a class, said that the detainees were being held in conditions that are ‘inconsistent with contemporary standards of human decency.’ He found that there is neither enough soap nor cleaning products, and it is impossible for detainees to maintain the recommended distance of six feet with another person.

One would have thought that, given the short amount of time to fulfill the judge’s order, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Geo Group, the private prison corporation which runs Adelanto, would be spending their time figuring out how to release these detainees. Instead, it is reported, they are appealing the decision. They are arguing against letting detainees—undocumented immigrants who have committed no criminal violations—out of a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.

Mitch McConnel, the Majority Leader of the Senate, when asked whether there should be more money for cities in the latest aid package is reported to have said that the cities should look into declaring bankruptcy. His stated reason for wanting cities to declare bankruptcy is to take care of their pension problems. In other words, McConnell wants to force cities like New York and Los Angeles to deny pensions to their retirees—pensions which were won in good faith negotiations years ago. The Senate Majority Leader wants to use this crisis to force the elderly to live in penury.

In the past weeks, in several cities, tens to a couple of hundred people have gathered to protest against the closures of businesses and the stay at home orders in several states. In some of the most morally abhorrent scenes, demonstrators screamed abuse at health care workers on break. One of the protestors carried a sign which read: “My liberty is worth more than your health.”

Why are we so mean? As a country, why are we so mean?

I do not ask, as some do, “when did we get to be so mean?” I did not phrase it like that since the answer, it turns out, is that we, as a country, have always been this mean.

The answer it turns out is racism. Apparently, if you build a country on the backs of enslaved people kidnapped and forcibly brought from Africa, this behavior does not produce a citizenry with feelings of good will towards every all.

In the antebellum North, the economy was fueled by the textile industry which was fed by cotton from Southern plantations. Cotton that was, of course, grown, harvested, and spun by enslaved Africans. The industrial revolution in New England was powered by slavery, and in turn New Englanders fought against abolition in the South. The shipping industry was equally a key player—trading in the textiles produced by enslaved humans. So while the Southern states actively enslaved people, the Northern states abetted slavery by profiting off its products.

After the Civil War, after the emancipation of enslaved people (with the caveat in the thirteenth amendment which allowed for a whole new means of racial control, as Michelle Alexander has written in The New Jim Crow), after the failed promises of “forty acres and a mule,” after the active killing of Reconstruction by Andrew Johnson, Americans faced a whole new universe of choices. They chose lynchings and Jim Crow. Even when it would have been to the benefit of the white working class to make common cause with the black working class (on the railroads, in the northern factories) whites preferred subjugation to the capitalists to having to call a black worker “brother.”

In his new book American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise, Eduardo Porter shows how American whites at every turn made decisions that ultimately hurt themselves, just so that black citizens or brown immigrants would not get a piece of the pie. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the delegates at the AFL-CIO in 1961 he warned them about the coming loss of jobs due to automation and the worsening of work conditions due to so-called “right to work” laws. King reminded the delegates that the black community had always stood with and voted with labor, and if labor wanted to win these fights they should open their ranks to blacks. This would double their size and their power.

The white delegates at this fourth Constitutional Convention in deeply segregated Miami in 1961 refused King’s offer—and eventually all the Southern States became “right to work” states.

Politicians (first Democrats, then after the Civil Rights bill passed and the racist whites changed parties and changed the parties) have consistently defeated bills that would grow the social safety net using racist dog whistles, and often racist bullhorns. The fear that blacks would benefit from government largesse—despite the fact that impoverished whites benefited at least as much from the same largesse—turned whites against welfare (see under “welfare queens”); then against money for education; then against money for housing.

The immigration debate often comes back to: why should these (brown) people coming from another country get all these benefits that should be going to native born (white) Americans.    The irony is that this racist reaction will ultimately hurt the white population, as Porter points out. The white population is aging and shrinking and will need younger people to pay taxes that will support social security and other earned entitlements. Those younger people are black and brown. Barring immigration will ultimately redound to the detriment of the white population.

In the Rabbinic conceptual vocabulary, the paragon of self-defeating selfish entitlement which prizes ownership over all moral goods is Sodom. In the rabbinic telling, the final straw that brought the wrath of God down on the Sodomites was that they had killed a young woman for the crime of sharing her food with another hungry woman.

We are (again) standing at a crossroads. We have already sold our souls for rotten porridge and the devil is limbering up to dance on the grave of our country. Will we choose now to try to walk the path we have never taken, the path of mutual aid which reaches out through and over and around differences, the path of solidarity, the path of undoing the systemic evils that we have actively and passively built over the last centuries, or will we follow the devil, and end up on the ash heap of history.

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