January 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
The official version of this article is published in the Fall 2013 edition of South Atlantic Quarterly here. I am posting a longer, but looser draft below, as there were some interesting points I had to cut out… Please reference published article for citations.
Years after Thomas Jefferson’s famous words “all men are created equal” began to ring as a call to conscience, he himself must have felt every bit of their hollowness. Polish Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko bequeathed Jefferson enough money to free his slaves, as well as to set them off with land and farming equipment of their own, but Jefferson refused this gift. Instead, he died with a debt hanging over Monticello – a kind of debt that he was the first to incur through monetizing his slaves for use as collateral for the loan to build his estate (Weincek 2012: 96). The slave families, who resided on Jefferson’s estate as intact families, were separated and sold to pay the outstanding debt such that the estate could be passed down to its rightful heir. In spite of words we have no reason not to believe were heartfelt, and in spite of fathering six black children, Jefferson was not able to rise to the call of his words in the end, leaving as mixed a legacy as the American history that has followed. And in spite of generations of black descendants, no reparation has ever been paid to them; they remain a forgotten part of this legacy. As the story is most commonly told, there is only mention made to a legitimate debt paid with the bodies, blood and breath of Jefferson slaves, but no mention of any owing to them. Unfortunately, this telling of Jefferson’s story not only exposes the power dynamics of the past, but also discloses a fundamental understanding of the world that continues to rear its ugly head today.
During Jefferson’s life, Wall Street was already expanding on and experimenting with the monetization of human life through debt. In 1804, well before the battle for abolition was won here in America, but only after a bloody 13-year struggle, Haitian slaves liberated themselves by successfully defeating Napoleon. President Jefferson was the first to refuse to recognize their independence from France. As a result, over twenty years later, the French reminded the Haitians that they, themselves, constituted a debt. The Haitians did the only thing they could to retain their physical freedom and borrowed the equivalent of $150 million dollars (almost double the cost of Louisiana) from Wall Street to pay “reparations” to the French. Of course, this original predatory debt reaped enormous rewards and in the end they paid the equivalent of $20 billion dollars for their freedom – something that never should have been for sale. And all the way up until 1947, 80% of Haiti’s economy went to pay off this debt to National City Bank – known today as Citibank. Of course, the price of freedom was unrelenting poverty, the permanent loss of opportunity to develop infrastructure, and the seemingly never-ending suffering in enslavement of another form.
December 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
When Sandy’s waters finally receded, they left behind the devastation of lost lives and a mountain of debris. And they also exposed how a system of historic inequity perpetuates itself in real life, real time and real suffering. A network of people from all walks of life who identified as members of Occupy Wall Street came together quickly and organically to intervene.
Organizers set out to practice the anarchist principle of mutual aid on the ground. By bringing the best of Zuccotti Park to people that mostly had no interest in an anti-capitalist movement, and in some cases even associated themselves with the Tea Party, activists thought disaster aid would naturally become political. The slogan quickly became “solidarity not charity.”
In the urgency of the immediate aftermath of the storm, solidarity in practice meant providing hot food, warm blankets and clothing, and attempting to assist the newly homeless with places to stay and abstruse FEMA paperwork.
Fundraising websites went live, and within a few days Occupy Sandy had raised nearly a million dollars. The Occupy network quickly dispersed to three main areas: Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens and Midland Beach in Staten Island. Each area faced similar geographic challenges as shoreline communities, but each had distinct – yet equally rocky – economic terrain.
Of course, the storm before Sandy was the so-called Great Recession. Many in the hardest hit areas were already reeling from the new economic realities of long-term joblessness, declining property values and reduced consumer spending. But, for many in these communities these realities had nothing to do with a recession or storm – poverty and oppression were already written on their daily lives. Thus, for some the storm exposed precariousness, but for others the storm held the potential to expose the injustice of long term national policies that led to the unjust enrichment of some and the impoverishment of others.
In this context the line between solidarity and charity was immediately blurred. Since it was unclear what solidarity looked like before the storm, it was even less clear what it looked like after.
Originally published in SocialText/Periscope
October 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
This week, the UN released a report on the progress of reducing AIDS globally. And, although the mainstream media has painted a positive picture by touting large reductions in cases, a deeper look at the report reveals that only 34% of those eligible for treatment are receiving it. Of the 28 million people in low and middle income countries who have AIDS and who are also eligible for treatment, only 9.7 million people are actually receiving help. So, why is there such an enormous gap?
A recent film called Fire in the Blood by Dylan Mohan Gray explains the nefarious reasons behind this horrible reality – how the capitalist ideology of profit before people mixed with racism to literally cause the deaths and continued suffering of millions of people.
According to the UN report, 90% of people with unmet needs for antiretroviral treatment live in 30 countries most of which are in Africa, but which also include: Brazil, India, Vietnam, Columbia, and China – in other words the Global South.
It was in 1996 that the antiretroviral cocktail that ended the AIDS crisis in the West was discovered. Yet, between 1997 and 2003, 10 million men, women, and children died of AIDS in Africa simply because Big Pharma denied them access to these drugs in an effort to protect their profits. Put into perspective, 10 million is almost 15 times the number of people than who died of AIDS in the United States during the entire 32 year history of the disease.
May 16, 2013 Comments Off
Generally speaking, the American Dream goes something like this: go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, raise a family, and retire on your nest egg. We’ve all been told that we live in a meritocracy, so as long as we work hard and play by the rules, we’ll end up sipping Daiquiris on some exotic beach when we retire at 65.
Unfortunately, the rarely acknowledged fuel for all this dreaming is wealth. As opposed to the myth of meritocracy, the reality is that privileges grow as money is passed down generationally, typically when parents pay for college educations and provide sizeable down payments for first homes. One generation establishes the wealth of the next, and the next generation builds on the wealth of the former. But, what happens when parents don’t possess saved wealth?
A recent report entitled, The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide, from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) shows that over time the gap between those with intergenerational wealth and those without it only widens. As of 2009, whites possessed 20 times the wealth of blacks. In practical terms this means that the average middle class black family has less access to resources than a white family with earnings below the poverty line.