Aug 252008

In case you missed it in the papers, the federal deficit has recently risen by another $455 million dollars.  A federal judge has determined that a class of Native Americans who has sued the government for funds due them should receive this amount. I’m certain this will not be the final figure. There is certain to be an appeal. Incidentally, this figure is a fraction of the $6 billion dollar settlement that had been proposed. To pay off the more conservative amount, Americans will still have to commit resources for years to come – or perhaps forgo a Tomahawk jet or two.

The government has only itself to blame here. U.S. law treats Native Americans as wards of the State. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, through its agents, bore the task of overseeing the Indians and exercising legal power over them. First the Indians were “resettled” – that is, their land was taken from them and they were forced to move to foreign locations, which often unraveled the whole fabric of their lives. If you are a nomadic people, how do you become farmers overnight? If your social practices are structured around migrations, how do you reorganize when suddenly tied to one place? Likewise, if yours is a fishing culture, how do you cook without seafood? Native American nations reeled at readjusting after their forced relocations. Some Indians were strong-armed onto reservations, which were frequently located in scrubby, desertic, or unfertile places where they had no hope of raising food to feed themselves and where there was no industry to provide employment. There, and on their own tribal lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) dictated much of their lives. Efforts to “Americanize” the Indians led to mandatory education at boarding schools that taught Native Americans to follow white cultural habits. Those who remained at home were taught in schools by missionaries or white agents who forbade them from speaking their native languages or studying traditional curricula. Schools were “English-only” and they taught what the government approved in order to “civilize” Native American children.

Also, the government foisted its own laws onto the tribal societies. When colonists first came to this country, they made treaties with the Indians as if they were foreign powers like the French or Germans. U.S. courts in the 19th century, however, determined that these were “domestic nations,” covered by the umbrella of federalism. By the end of the 19th century, the courts had expanded the federal government’s power over the Indian nations such that their own law became essentially meaningless. Forced assimilation went on unabated. Ironically, Native Americans weren’t even granted citizenship until well after these programs decimated their societies. Until 1924, they were unrecognized aliens in their own land, and even after they gained citizenship then, they remained unconnected to American society at large. In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act had split their communal societies into individual landownerships. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 repealed Dawes many years later, but opponents of returning self-government to the Indians undermined that law. During the 1950’s (the heyday of religious boosterism that gave us anti-communism, prayer in school, and added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance), Congressional legislation undermined Indian sovereignty. After World War II, Native Americans, like black civil rights activists, began demanding autonomy and an end to their second-class status. They occupied Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, and the BIA building in Washington, D.C. In response to the “Red Power” movement, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination Act in 1975, which returned some control over education and social programs to the Indian nations.

Poverty, unfortunately, still plagues Native American societies though. The majority of the poorest counties in the country are home to Indian communities. Unemployment among Native Americans is well above the national average, and many of these areas still lack indoor plumbing and utility services. Congress’ solution to this plague was to pass a law in 1988 allowing the tribes to operate casinos and organize gambling activities. The helping hand out of poverty is attached to the arm of a slot machine.

The Indian nations would not be dependent upon the moral degeneration of American citizens, however, if the BIA and the government had done right by these “wards” and not deprived them of monies owed. When oil and other resources were discovered on Indian properties, the BIA was responsible for managing the royalties due the landowners (Indians). The justification for this trusteeship was a pejorative assumption that Native Americans were not knowledgeable enough in financial matters and needed someone to manage their funds for them. What ultimately happened, however, was that BIA agents and the government robbed the Indians blind. They did not receive their full royalties, and now a group of them has come to claim their accounts. It’s their money. It always was. The government and agents helped themselves to it, and now the I.O.U. is due. I expect this is only the first such class action. There are more injured parties out there. I wonder what kind of superpower we will be if there’s a run on the bank. When you pay your taxes next, bear this in mind: you are making restitution for years and years of mismanagement and theft. God bless America.


 Posted by at 7:31 am
Aug 132008

Watching the Beijing Olympics, I can’t help but wonder at the very complicated relationship the U.S. has with China.  In the beginning, we had an interest in reaching the Chinese market in order to export goods there.  The Chinese were not interested, and had we not pressed it, we likely would’ve remained in our respective spheres.  Our expansion into the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century (in the Philippines and the like) and ties with European colonial powers with holdings in Asia led us to pursue a connection anyway.  In 1900, a Chinese faction attacked foreigners in China, hoping to expel them and restore the country’s isolation.  The U.S. joined an “expeditionary” force to rescue captive diplomats and protect our trading interests.  As a result, the Chinese government granted us continuing access to its markets.

This meddling in China was strictly tied to our lust for commerce.  We had no interest in forging connections with the Chinese socially or to engage with their culture.  We just wanted their money.  In the U.S., racism towards Asians was extremely high then — and our country focused much of its hostility toward the Chinese.  In 1882, we had actually banned Chinese immigrants from coming to our country for ten years and barred those already here from becoming citizens.  In 1892, Congress renewed the ban and in 1902, it was made permanent (to be repealed in 1943 — with lingering immigration restrictions).  The Chinese were the only people we treated this way.  We did not ban Greeks or Germans or Hispanics.  Our discrimination toward the Chinese was exclusive.  We wanted them to buy our goods, but we didn’t want anything to do with them otherwise.

What prompted this extreme hostility?  Well, partly, workers in the western United States blamed Chinese immigrants for accepting low wages that drove down pay for others and put Americans out of work (or as much as .002 percent of the population could affect wages and jobs anyway).  In other areas, freed blacks, Hispanics, Irish, and women had the same effect.  Congress did not ban such groups though.

The difference with the Chinese was undoubtedly race.  Those were the days of social Darwinism, when Americans were obsessed with racial purity.  The Irish and Hispanics were lesser sorts — but not so foreign as Asians.  Their origins were in Europe and their cultures more familiar than the strange (and unwelcoming) ways of the Chinese.  It’s amazing what a difference a shared alphabet makes.  So, Americans took steps to keep out immigrants from China as thoroughly as possible.

Things were poor for the Chinese already here.  Employers — the railroads especially — exploited Chinese workers for extremely low wages.  To survive, these immigrants huddled together in segregated neighborhoods (“Chinatowns”), pooling resources to preserve themselves economically and socially.  Railroad work often pulled Chinese workers away from enclaves in California and the coast though.  For example, the Union Pacific Coal Company (which supplied coal for the trains) brought in Chinese workers to replace whites in mines in the northwest.  By 1885, hundreds of Chinese workers had replaced Americans in the mines in Rock Springs, Wyoming.  The whites, who struck for better wages and conditions, rioted that year and attacked the Chinese.  The rioters looted the immigrants’ homes and then burned them down.  At least twenty were killed and many others were wounded or disabled.  Survivors lost everything and received no emergency aid from hostile and prejudiced locals, prompting intervention by the Chinese consulate.  While the Rock Springs riot was the most violent of the conflicts in Wyoming, it was not the only such incident targeting Chinese immigrants in the U.S.  Even the police were often guilty of attacking the Chinese.  Early cases defining police brutality and acceptable law enforcement practices often involved Chinese immigrants.

Here we are now, all these years later, and our economy has grown increasingly dependent on the people we so thoroughly disdained.  Unlike we first envisioned, though, we do not rely on China to buy American-made goods.  We rely on their cheap labor to supply us with inexpensive products to feed our consumption.  Their sweatshops still serve, but the Chinese are less our “coolies” than our bankers, these days.  Our drive for racial purity hasn’t left us independent of or superior to the Chinese.  It has, however, complicated our diplomacy and hangs, unspoken, over this year’s Games.


 Posted by at 7:25 pm
Aug 042008

“The Enforcement Acts, although seldom enforced, discouraged Klan violence, which declined by 1872.”

“For over a decade after its passage, the Sherman Act — indifferently enforced and steadily weakened by the courts — had virtually no impact.”

It’s amazing to me how, in history books, laws are so often responsible for their own successes or failures.  It’s as if these written codes have some kind of power in themselves — for that’s how historians often treat them.  Statements like the above, from the textbook I am required to use, blame the law for being ineffective or applaud it when it is vital.  This is crazy.  Laws are concepts — they aren’t animate objects and they have no physical force.  As written statutes, they can only gain effectiveness when used by a human actor.  Yet, you’ll notice in the quotes above that such are absent.  How do you take human beings out of history?  It’s a record of human behavior, for God’s sake.

Tellingly, these two quotes — by making these laws the subjects of the sentences — obscure the role of the government in the legislations’ effectiveness.  You’ll note that the author here describes the Enforcement Acts as “seldom enforced” and the Sherman Act as “indifferently enforced.”  Reading between the lines, you’d gather that there was a problem with law enforcement in both cases.  The Department of Justice was obliged to fill that role.  The good historian — rather than just tell you that these codes were largely unused — would lead you to ask why the DOJ wasn’t enforcing the laws.  No one is prosecuted for violations of statutes if the prosecutors aren’t doing their job.  So, what you should be wondering here is:  why weren’t DOJ lawyers using the Enforcement Acts and why weren’t they behind the Sherman Act?  If you were to ask these questions, you might stumble onto how personal passions affect law enforcement.

The obvious inference here is that the author doesn’t want to portray the DOJ — and therefore the federal government — as ineffective.  Why?  A good guess is that he doesn’t want to encourage students to view the government negatively.  He wants them to believe that the government is powerful (which would fit with the theme of his book:  nation-building).  It’s the laws, then, that are to blame for their own impotency.  So, the author propones that logical fallacy in order to preserve your faith in the U.S. government.  This is pure propaganda.

The less obvious inference to draw is that the ideology of these human actors influenced how these laws were enforced.  If the Enforcement Acts‘ aim was to combat the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and prosecutors weren’t using them, this suggests that they weren’t seriously opposed to racial violence or interested in taking on white supremacy in the south after the Civil War.  You should wonder, then, about the racial views of the DOJ lawyers and their commitment to equality under the law.  And, in the case of the Sherman Act, you should wonder if these prosecutors were really opposed to monopolies and if they were enabling the robber barons to have their way with the American economy and society.  You might also draw the conclusion that the government was a tool of the wealthy.  But then, that might make you wonder if that were the case today too.  It’s safer for historians, then, to talk passively about ineffective laws.  Pointing fingers might breed disrespect.

The DOJ was not shy about using the Sherman Act against labor unions, by the way, but that’s another story.


 Posted by at 6:56 pm