Revisit the history of slavery. to understand injustice today

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 25, 2019

All Americans should quietly read and reflect on the 1619 Project of the New York Times that aims to reframe our understanding of United States history.
To mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans forcefully brought to our shores, the Times plans a series of essays examining the origins and consequences of slavery.
The first set of essays are written by 17 black writers who focus on the role of government in establishing slavery, the extent to which slavery shaped our economic system and its lasting impact on our criminal justice system.

Americans tend to be unaware of the scale, scope and status of legal slavery since 1619. Too often we think “Lincoln freed the slaves, let’s move on.”
Today’s constitutional debates about the Electoral College, the role of a national banking system, representation in Congress and states’ independence in adopting Medicare expansion are all rooted in the history of slavery.
Federalism — our independent but interdependent levels of government — is one of America’s two original contributions to the practice of governance (the other being the “checks and balances” contained in the Constitution). Federalism may have been adopted by our Founders to preserve slavery.

Essays in the 1619 Project review several historical events that were unfamiliar to me. Two of the most important happened quite early. President George Washington signed the first Fugitive Slave Act on Feb. 12, 1793, to require captured slaves to be returned to their owners. In 1664, Maryland’s General Assembly decreed that “all Negroes within the province shall serve hard labor for life.” These are official government decisions to enforce slavery.

Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” raised many uncomfortable questions for a slave owner, even if a rather benevolent one. It required several American political beliefs had to be reconciled. Consequently, Jefferson authored “Notes on the State of Virginia” in 1785 where he wrote of “racial differences which nature has made” that become an early argument for the natural inferiority of the black race.
That probably made it easier to accept a black person as a three-fifth citizen for purposes of congressional representation.

While I want to keep Jefferson in the history books, we need a fuller understanding of his writings, his life and his political theory.
At a minimum I want to understand how such bold, creative, analytical thinkers had such a big blind spot.

In one of the more practical essays in the 1619 Project, Kevin Kruse asks “What does a traffic jam in Atlanta, and every major city, have to do with segregation?” His answer: “Quite a lot.” He recounts how segregated housing policy was the foundation for the interstate highway system that tore through black neighborhoods rather than along routes that would have resulted in better coordinated, more efficient highways — but would go through white areas.

Bryan Stevenson’s essay argues that “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment” that still define our prison system today.
A visit to the any Missouri county courthouse will demonstrate to an observant citizen that something is wrong. Racial disparities in mass incarceration, the death penalty, policing and the low priority given public defenders are all outgrowths of slavery.

None of us were living in 1619, but slavery shaped and continues to shape our political system and our daily lives. Racial injustices continued well after the Civil War, with the massive failure of Reconstruction due to violent Southern resistance that resulted in a particularly low point in American history.

Well into the 1960s, black land ownership in some Southern states was thwarted by financial misdeeds of the powerful. Residence-based public education is a very stubborn system to update and upgrade because of its foundation on local control, largely to prevent the education of black people.

Private behavior has been shaped by slavery, too. The history of religion in the U.S. is a history of separate black and white churches. Likewise, recreation and educational organizations were often created to avoid racial mixing.

I don’t know how a nation makes peace with its past. Part of the reason white Americans do not understand periodic racial riots and rebellions — and the public policies meant to correct racial injustices — is that we are largely unaware of how racial practices shape our nation’s history.

While that ignorance may be understandable for our isolated grandparents, we now know better. It is our collective responsibility to correct pervasive, widespread racial injustices of our past. Coming to terms with our complete history is a step in the right direction.

Let’s create a National Commission on Preventing Mass Shootings

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, August 11, 2019

We have a national crisis. Mass shootings have affected the lives of innocent school children and teenagers, movie goers and party goers, and now Walmart shoppers. Enough of these random rampages of human pain and destruction. It is way too much.

The political system should have responded constructively after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings in December 2012. We need a National Commission on Preventing Mass Shootings because the regular political system has failed.

While we do have a global warming crisis, and a deficit crisis, and a college student debt crisis and a health care cost crisis, the epidemic of mass shootings might be the most critical. If there isn’t a substantial reduction, the result may be a draconian crackdown on personal communications and gun ownership in about a decade.

Crowds in El Paso and Dayton chanting “Do Something!” pretty well capture the state of our political system’s meek response to the gun violence — but especially the mass shootings — we have seen in the past decade.

We are stuck in a loop of mass shooting, public outcry, thoughts and prayers, then back to our daily routines.

Real policymaking must be done.

Gun violence is not new in America. Whatever you think of President Donald Trump, America’s record of gun violence predates his election in 2016. Given our polarized politics, an obstinate Senate majority leader, a rigid president, a non-responsive majority party and the short-term sensationalist perspective of the electronic media, our most promising path might be a non-partisan National Commission on Preventing Mass Shootings.

The commission should be co-chaired by former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Former president Barack Obama should probably not be involved because, despite being the most admired man in America, his participation would garner 40 percent opposition from the start.

It would be wonderful if Trump would establish, or at least endorse, the commission, but former presidents Bush and Clinton could do that themselves.
Nonpartisan commissions have been created before in American history to organize information and deliberation about complex and controversial topics.
Two of the better-known commission have been the Kerner Commission on Urban Unrest (1967) and the more recent National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (2010).

Critics will say they didn’t solve the problem of urban unrest or federal fiscal deficit. But they did organize information and evidence helpful in focus discussion and debate.

Hear me out. There is more agreement among citizens, and I suspect among Republican policymakers, than is reflected in much of the news.
This is not the time to blame and to badmouth, we need constructive, politically feasible actions that can be implemented to end this slaughter of innocent citizens. Here is what needs to be done.

First, keep mass shootings and gun violence at the top of America’s political agenda. Citizen action groups like Moms Demand Action or the more partisan Brady Campaign or the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence must keep public and media attention on the gun violence. There should be widespread meetings in Washington and across the country once a month until a reasonable mass shooting policy is adopted

Second, establish the National Commission on Preventing Mass Shootings comprised of politically astute and experienced former policymakers and funded by national non-partisan organizations (United Way, Red Cross, think tanks). It should include recent political leaders such as former Secretary of Defense Bill Gates, former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and several former U.S. senators who have insight as to moving a legislation through the Senate.
The commission needs to lean Republican because Trump and the Senate are Republicans.

Third, the commission should adopt a specific goal. One possibility is the Brady Campaign’s goal of reducing gun violence by 25 % by 2025, but that seems low.
How about 50% or 75 %? The commission should adopt a clear agenda and invite public reaction.

Here is a proposed questions that could help set an agenda:
1. Are domestic terrorism laws sufficient to deal with increased white nationalist and white supremacy groups?
2. Are current national crime prevention programs sufficiently funded?
3. To what extent would more mental health programs reduce violence?
4. What is the role of social media and video games in motivating mass shooters?
5. Would reasonable, stricter gun laws, such as background checks and outlawing military-style weapons, reduce mass shootings?
6. What newer approaches, such as “red flag” legislation, would allow government authorities to acquire the guns of someone reported to be a danger to themselves and others?

There are knowledgeable people throughout academia, law enforcement and social services who can share their hard-earned knowledge with policymakers.

Fourth, the news media needs to more responsibly serve the public interest by educating them about the causes and solutions to mass shootings. Most often it seems media coverage is devoted to the immediate human response to tragedies or to the blame game among Washington insiders. The same-old, same-old media coverage won’t reduce mass shootings.

Finally, citizens need to be informed and hold their elected officials accountable.

The record is clear: normal politics in America won’t reduce mass shootings.
Rather than accept typical party lines, citizens should use their common sense and ask “how can mass shootings be prevented”?

Write your senator, talk with other citizens, join a political group. Do something.

Mixed feelings about a 50th high school reunion

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN August 4, 2019

High school 50th reunions are supposedly a milestone, a rite of passage, filled with apprehension, resignation, satisfaction, amusement and amazement.
Estimates are that 20-30% of alumni attend their 50th high school reunion. Mine is this fall.

I graduated from Butler Senior High School in Butler, Pennsylvania, in 1969. Because of travel and timing, it is unlikely that I will attend the reunion. If I lived closer, I might be more likely to go.

But, to ensure that I did not totally miss out on the experience, I recently attended two informal 50th reunion events for Columbia’s Hickman High School Class of 1969.
Here’s what I learned after surveying the high school experience from the half-century point.
My hometown was very important in my development and still is in my memory, but not so much my high school.

Butler is a declining steel town of about 60,000 people, 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. My graduating class had more than 900 students, with only a few non-white classmates. Western Pennsylvania loves football, deer hunting and Iron City beer. Butler is in a Republican county, so I am instinctively slow to ridicule Trump voter

My high school experience was “fine,” i.e. average or typical, but when I list the influences on my development, it falls behind my family, my neighbors, Boy Scouts, the YMCA, my father’s employers, the public library, the swimming pool and parks. The cross-country coach and three teachers (plane geometry, social studies and English) made strong impressions on me and seemed to recognize my individuality. Except for one jerk (American history), the rest were OK, I guess. It was a huge school. My friends were mostly my grade-school friends and fellow athletes, but they paled beside the influence of seven siblings.

Butler High, with more than 900 seniors and 790 known graduates, was 50 percent larger than Columbia Hickman in 1969, with about 600 hundred seniors and 530 graduates. Almost half of Butler’s alumni have joined our class website where the whereabouts of 102 classmates are listed as unknown, compared to 120 “lost classmates” at Hickman. Hickman also had proportionally fewer reported deaths — 72 deceased classmates, compared to 156 at Butler.

The biggest difference between Hickman and good ole Butler High is the cities where they are located. Columbia now has three full-service high schools, while Butler High has seen declining enrollment since the 1980s. Columbia, of course, is a big college town, while my hometown was once a “Pennsylvania steel town” that now resembles the rest of Missouri more than it resembles Columbia. Boone County has become more electorally competitive, i.e. more Republican, while Butler County was Republican before I was born.

I discovered that the internet has a mixed impact on reunion attendance: While it is possible to “find” more classmates and even follow them on social media, the incentive to attend a reunion is less compelling. I checked with five fellow Butler classmates and learned that they don’t plan to attend the reunion either. I would be much more likely to attend if a fellow cross-country runner, whose whereabouts have been unknown since the early 1970s, and several of my grade-school friends, planned to attend.

This year, Hickman’s 50th reunion attracted 135 alumni to at least one of several events. So, a good guess would be that my reunion would have about 200 fellow classmates.

I probably would have known half of them in high school. Despite 50 years of aging, I expect I would still recognize at least a quarter of them. I would specifically remember, say 20 individual classmates, and the rest would fit into my collage of a high school poster: class leaders, cheerleaders and people “everyone knew.”

Based on my conversations with Hickman and other high school alumni of that vintage who attended a 50th reunion, here is what I predict we would talk about:
First, we would catch up on the here and now. Perhaps we would discuss where we live, whether we have grandchildren and if we are still working. I would be careful not to mention any politically controversial topics.
Second, if we are the same gender, we would ask about our health and tell each other, “you’re looking good.” Undoubtedly, over the course of the evening, it would be mentioned that someone, most likely a woman, still “looked great.”
Third, we would acknowledge classmates who have died or are otherwise absent. We might mention a specific teacher or two, but most of us probably couldn’t recall very many.
Fourth, with a few classmates, I might broach this question: “Did things turn out better than you expected?” Yes, most likely they have — for those who choose to attend a class reunion.

The class of 1969 graduated from high school at an important time, although every class probably says that. Still, 1969 was at the height of the Vietnam War, the summer of Woodstock and, of course, the year Apollo 11 took Neil Armstrong to the moon. We were the last class to have a dress code. Drugs were only beginning to be a “real problem” for white teenagers. Several of my classmates were killed in Vietnam, by drug overdoses or AIDS.

I know that several Hickman reunion attendees came back to Columbia largely because they still have family here. One guy in particular told me he never felt he fit in at Hickman, saying it was as if the school “had a dome over it that he couldn’t crack.” He said he came for the weekend to help his mother move into an independent living facility and decided to check out the reunion.
I’m grateful that I always felt I fit in into my high school. They weren’t “the best years of my life,” but they moved me along to adulthood.

If I could do it again, I probably wouldn’t study any harder, but I would be spending more time on music than sports. I would also be more likely to worry about getting into trouble with sex, drugs and alcohol. They’re all much more prevalent today than they were 50 years ago.