From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters
The opposition to “critical race theory” is an old idea in new clothes, whitewashing U.S. history based on a mythical past. A Trumpist “great America” never existed. Every aspect of building America was done with immense human sacrifice. The Brooklyn Bridge is an engineering wonder. But building it cost untold numbers of lives, most of them new immigrants.
HISTORY MEANS SEEING SLAVERY’S HORRORS
Republicans in Virginia may have won the governor’s race by attacking the teaching of Toni Morrison’s book Beloved in schools. The parents of one of the white students claimed that its portrayal of the brutality of slavery gave him nightmares. Republican activists objected to the school teaching such texts. Their cry is “parents’ rights,” which includes a number of issues: from opposing vaccines and masks and bathroom usage by gender non-conforming students, to attacks on “critical race theory,” which is not even taught in Virginia’s public schools.
Why is it so hard for some people to admit that horrible wrongs were committed in the past? The boy’s parents think of themselves as decent people only trying to protect their son. Yet if Beloved is so horrifying for him, why is that? Some say that for a white man to admit a fault contradicts his identity, based on “white” is good.
Yet these “good” people engaged in a slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the U.S. Civil War over the issue of owning people of another color. They object to teaching Beloved because it forces them look at the horrors of slavery perpetrated by people who look like them and their son.
They are forfeiting their ability to think, to deal with harsh truths. Is it so hard to say that it’s wrong for a human to be thought of as less than you because of the color of their skin? Or the God they believe in? In trying to “protect” their son, they are depriving all children of an environment where they can learn their real history and develop as human beings.
We can’t find a way out of this until we face the horrors of reality, not just in history, or as history is depicted in novels, but in life.
Today the misery this system visits on humans is really ugly. So many people live without hope. San Francisco’s Tenderloin, where I work on the streets every day, is in large part just containment—containment of problems without addressing anything.
THE IMMEDIATE STRUGGLE FOR EXISTENCE
The people I see have so few relationships in their lives. And what few they had, were toxic. I see youth, especially, who just want to be heard, looking for someone to listen to them. I’ve heard of atrocities they went through in their homes. It leaves scars that go deeper than most people suspect. I see young teens who have run away from the abuse at home.
Lately, I hear shootings in San Francisco every night. There are too many street corners for the police to cover effectively. Drug culture is thriving. During the day mostly whites drive up to “pill alley” spending hundreds of dollars at a time for whatever drugs they want. But at night it’s a different story. There is a complete breakdown of society. Every morning there are more memorials, erected to victims of those shootings.
The struggle for existence here is immediate. It’s a predatory life. People are vying for basic necessities. Elderly people come to the Civic Center because they have to sell whatever they can for a dollar or two.
This is not unique to San Francisco. This is the way the world is now. The Third World is right here, in the U.S., and has been here for generations. People are fighting to exist. Not live, just exist!
You have to have more than a superficial interpretation of life. When you read Marx’s Capital with his description of so-called primitive accumulation, you read about lives sacrificed everywhere, whether in wars or workplaces, like building a bridge. That’s what you see here every day. What we see now is capitalism’s redundant, thrown away surplus population that has no value. What can you do? Sell them fentanyl? Capitalism has reduced a huge segment of society to this level.
If life is to have any meaning, it has to be more than mere existence. Marx was right when he said wealth is not about some mythical past, but contrasted wealth—in its present state as money or value accumulated in things—to actual human development and creativity freely shared within a community.