Category Archives: Virginia Palm

How Ferguson destroyed the American dream


THE MASS PROTESTS in Ferguson are a continuation of the most visibly violent part of racial inequality. The recent financial crisis only amplifies the enduring racial inequality found within daily economic interactions and welfare in the US.

The images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, are forming an all-too-familiar picture of shootings by white men (police or not) of unarmed young black men in America. This is just one incidence in a longer history of violence. Comparisons are being made to the Civil Rights Era protests, but can also be made to race riots specifically over police brutality, such as in 1980 Miami, 1992 Los Angeles, 2001 Cincinnati, and 2009 Oakland. While comprehensive official numbers are not kept over police use of force, or of force resulting in death, the incidents happen on a frequent and reoccurring basis. What is rarer is the scale of response of Ferguson’s local community, who rose in protests and riots and was met by police equipped with military gear.

The explosion of news coverage and opinion to explain the facts of everyday blackness, the world in which the largest racial minority of the U.S. navigates on a daily basis, demonstrates just how foreign the African-American experience is for many white Americans. The news describes a national “soul-searching”, but it is a very specific group that must comprehend such a different life outlook that could prompt such a reaction. Many Americans lack a sense of the true landscape of inequality within the U.S., due to a combination of insulation and an unwillingness to see that reality.

From 1970 onwards, black-white segregation has risen between larger neighborhoods and communities throughout the U.S. According to the PRRI 2013 American Values Survey, white people’s average social circles are 91% white, and 75% of white people have entirely white social circles. Schools have returned to pre-Civil Rights Era segregation levels. There are two large contributing factors: subconscious prejudgments and the selection of choices (such as housing options) being formed from overtly racist policies, some past, some present. Self-segregation serves to reinforce the unawareness of the discrimination that impacts the ability of all people to go about life. It also increases a lack of understanding that the ability to implement choices, such as moving to a new neighborhood, bears higher constraints and costs for some people, such as justifiable worries of bias by the home mortgage officer, the police, and teacher. Isolation leaves stereotypes to play a much stronger role than actual experience that would debunk those myths.

Economic interactions and human value

The economy is ideally a place of equal opportunity, but in practice, a place where existing and inherited wealth obtains better opportunities to participate within the economy, and where discriminatory behaviors occur. And, if basic human needs are met unequally, such as education, or healthcare, then the playing field is even more uneven.

Historically, African-Americans were denied access completely, often through violence. The foundation of modern American welfare, Social Security, was designed specifically in the Great Depression to aid poor white workers, and excluded high black-occupancy professions. Many of the programs from Social Security aided white people in climbing the post-Second World War economic boom, while leaving black people in low-skilled and low-paid jobs.

Current white anti-welfare sentiment has a strong basis in the belief that welfare programs benefit primarily African-Americans. The actual incidence of poverty among African-Americans is approximately ¼ (versus approximately 1/10 among whites). While African-Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population and thus a small proportion of Americans in poverty, media representation of poverty has a distinctly black face. The structure of American welfare is highly needs-based, requiring proof that one is deserving of assistance. This represents a high tolerance for individual competition for the best of unequal services. It also indicates an acceptance that some people will not have a chance to fulfill their potential and contribute their best to the society. It places an implicit assumption that some people may judge whether others are deserving of having their basic needs met, and that undeserving people exist.

Discrimination makes African-Americans much harder hit during times of economic downturn, regardless of wealth. Immediately before the financial crisis, African-Americans with credit scores eligible for a standard loan were more than three times likely to hold a risky subprime loan than a white loan holder with similar score. Discriminatory practices created higher odds to hold a subprime mortgage for a black household with an income over $200,000 than a white household at $32,000.

The rise in segregation corresponds with the rise in the wealth gap between poor and rich in the U.S. It also corresponds with a movement against government social spending. As Americans’ experiences diverge, lines of inequality of exacerbated, with decreases in African-American well-being, from literacy to health and life expectancy.

The stereotypes of ‘blackness’ are tied to a valuation of the worth of a person, and were used to justify the enslavement of Africans and use of their labor, on the basis that they valued as a lesser human. American valuation of personal worth is inherently tied to wealth, because within that imagined economy, where individuals equally have the opportunity to “lift themselves up by the bootstraps,” the ones who worked the hardest were able to get ahead. Such a vision, so distant from reality, draws attention away from the active recreation of inequality within daily life.

By Virginia Palm


The USA and the power of the people

Occupy Wallstreet = photo by Aaron Bauer

Occupy Wallstreet = photo by Aaron Bauer

America, like much of the world, has been through a rough few years. The rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements reveal a cry for radical change of the economic and political system. But how can New Economy – which revolves around economic and environmental sustainability rather than profit making – be established in a society that traditionally values self-madement, economic prosperity and independency?

The Tea Party and the Occupy movement, while very different in many ways, both stem from the same source: dissatisfaction with the economy and the larger social and political structures and values. And when topics of broad public concern are brought up the movements refer to the same set of values. Both belief in democracy, freedom, equality, opportunity, independence, and self-sufficiency.

How does adherence to such values affect the New Economy? A significant aspect of the New Economy is the acknowledgement of interdependence: our actions affect others, and we need others to survive and thrive. This idea contradicts the American value of independence. It is especially scary to imagine ourselves as interdependent when it appears that so much of humanity may not be trustworthy, and may in fact be harming us. When it appears that things like democracy, opportunity, and equality are waning within society, that provides more reason to escape.

The Myth of the American Dream

With so much coverage on the crisis, one may wonder where origins of the economic malaise lies. Firstly, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 ensued from the burst of the U.S. housing bubble in 2006 and the resulting subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. This demonstrated a larger problem of an out-of-control Wall Street and an unresponsive government.

The “too big to fail” industries gained bank and auto industry bailouts,  yet small businesses failed to see such aid. When

Pot luck in Cadilac, Michigan, one of America's 150 Transition Towns where people strive to create economical and environmental sustainability

Pot luck in Cadilac, Michigan, one of America’s 150 Transition Towns where people strive to create economical and environmental sustainability

combined with record-breaking banker and CEO bonuses, it paints a picture of a fundamentally unfair system with the average American helpless and unable to influence.

The American Dream mythology is much harder to sustain given the growing reality for increasing numbers of the population. The U.S. has one of the highest inequalities of wealth distribution of the developed nations, particularly when measuring income after taxes and benefits and looking at actual wealth and savings. While the U.S. Great Recession was declared over in 2009, the majority of GDP growth has gone to the top 1% (and a large portion of that to the top 0.01%). The current generation of young adults is the first American generation, according to vast array of studies, that will have less income, less wealth, and a shorter life span than their parents.

Do-it-yourself attitude
This raises another American value that makes this inequality so hard to acknowledge: Americans have high faith in capitalism and a free-acting market as an entity in its own right. They also have a strong work ethic stemming from the Protestant heritage that condemns laziness and can measure a person’s worth by their wealth. Such valuation is dependent upon a system where hard work appears to be rewarded. The economic crisis may then help raise questions about the current economic order and people need to find an alternative way to demonstrate their value.

So where do Americans turn to find greater security and self-worth? The rising trend of homesteading over the past few years demonstrates the pull of self-sufficiency, frugalness, a return to the land, control over resources and the production process, and environmentalism, all rolled into one.

There are countless blogs covering individual attempts to take back of piece of the production process of food and other goods. From urban rooftop gardens to rural farms, individuals are creating a direct role in the local production of food. Moreover, do-it-yourself blogs help to constitute the home: make your own clothes and furniture, create your own make-up and toiletries, hack your own home to add in utilities and gadgets, etc. The bloggers are often young mothers, focused on their ability to provide care for their family. These are seedlings of New Economic concerns regarding investing in relationships, but rarely go to the broader neighborhood or community level, whose support is needed in order to provide a high level of care and security.

All of these activities allow for personal control in an uncertain world. They are also hailed as a way to be thrifty in tough economic times, and a way to be independent from others. These efforts satisfy the growing concern towards quality of food, which ranges from distrust over GMOs, big agribusiness, and low levels of regulation around food supply in comparison with other developed nations. It also offers a new way to value oneself, based upon how “pure” one is, measured in terms of limited environmental impact, consuming organics, and general resourcefulness.

When fear becomes a guide

When the response goes towards the fear-end of the spectrum, we wind up with lifestyles like survivalism. This disengagement from society stems from a belief that the government and economy will collapse, disaster will occur, and we will be left to fend for ourselves. TV shows like Doomsday Preppers sensationalize the trend that can be found across the internet, in blogs and online suppliers. The completeness of self-sufficiency, with off-the-grid living and long-term food supplies, romanticizes an American prairie frontier past way of life. The rhetoric hits common themes within the same breath, from the natural state of man, evilness of government handouts, concern over medication and technology dependence, and patriotism. Essentially, the argument comes down to, ‘when the system fails, you will be on your own, and to survive on your own is patriotic.’

New optimism
While the outrage continues at many individual levels, there is a lack of certainty at what the popular action was able to obtain. Core members of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are still persevering, but the mass movement has essentially dissipated.

However, one can find American efforts that are attempting to work together to engage in new community economic models. On a community and business level, “agrihoods,” housing developments centered around a working farm, are cropping up. The U.S. has 150 Transition Towns, which make efforts to foster sustainable communities through community practices geared towards water and energy conservation and fostering sharing economies. Time Banking, where members provide and receive hours of help or service, has a membership of 181 communities, the overwhelming majority of which are in the U.S. Local alternative currencies, designed to keep money within the local economy, appear in many states.

How do we explain New Economy success that exists in the U.S.?
With low levels of government welfare and eroding community engagement, it is understandable that people turn to family units to provide care. The New Economy efforts must work to build these broader social networks within and between communities. Efforts such as time banks claim they build on the understanding that people naturally like to feel valued and to help others. They believe the key to success is a positive vision of the future, and a sense of empowerment to affect that change.

But they have a lot to overcome—even their members can feel guilt in not paying cash for a service. The stigma of welfare is very strong in the U.S., and is high in personal blame. Furthermore, this unease with alternative currency shows a strong devaluation in anything that is not assigned a dollar price. A strong mental shift is needed. Because the rhetoric of self-reliance is such a strong part of American vocabulary, it is important to have positive examples of broader community efforts from around the world to demonstrate the power that communities can possess to take an active role in influencing the shape of their world. Perhaps this can be a new direction for America to take to regain its optimism and confidence.

By Virginia Palm