From time to time, I find myself telling somebody that the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary, and often as not I am met with the rejoinder that the attacks “saved American lives.” I’ve been meaning to explore that reasoning for a while, but recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and Cleveland and Dayton Ohio, to name just four examples, have brought the subject to the fore, and I think that going into this meme in some depth, and tracing its history both backwards and forwards from 1945, might just raise somebody’s consciousness besides mine–which, as those who know me well will attest, needs all the elevation it can get.
The historical record seems to indicate that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks were, in fact, entirely superfluous. The Japanese had been begging for peace terms for months. But let’s assume that when the United States nuked those two Japanese cities in August of 1945, American lives were saved by sacrificing Japanese lives. Which Japanese lives were lost? And which American lives were saved?
The Japanese who died were, by and large, non-combatants–women, children, and older men. These people may or may not have been supportive of the Japanese war effort. They were civilians, subjects of a government that had long ago insulated itself from the influence of its citizens’ opinions. By contrast, the Americans whose lives were allegedly spared by the use of atomic weapons were soldiers, individuals who had indicated a willingness to die for their country, if need be. And, by the way, they were mostly white guys. The equation that resulted in the only wartime use of atomic weapons was an equation that valued the lives of white warriors over the lives of dark-skinned civilians. At least 225,000 non-combatants were killed in these attacks, in order to save an estimated 450,000 American lives, the military’s guess at the human cost of invading Japan–a country that was largely out of food, fuel, raw materials, and weapons, and whose government was actively seeking an end to the war. Smells like U.S. propaganda to me, but there you have it–one Japanese civilian’s life (either sex, any age) was calculated to be worth the lives of two (male, probably white) American soldiers.
This is right in line with the assumptions our culture has been running on right from the start, and right in line with the assumptions it still runs on. The lives of white males are most important, and most worth protecting. At the time the Constitution was written, “We, The People of the United States,” when it came to voting and running for office, referred to white, male property owners. I have to wonder–when Republicans advocate “returning to the original meaning of the Constitution,” is this what they’re really talking about? Some things have changed since the 1790’s, but white males are still widely considered to have a right to do as we see fit in order to feel safe. We are more likely to get away with abusing our wives and children. We can attack uppity people of color and, more often than not, do so with impunity. Let’s not forget that the Second Amendment–the one about militias and the right to keep and bear arms–was included so that those “militias” would be available to put down slave rebellions–i.e., summarily execute African-Americans who objected to being enslaved.
In 1850, there were 3.2 million slaves in America, about half male and half female. That’s 1.6 million male slaves. According to one source, about 40% of the male slaves were adults, giving a total of approximately 840,000 adult African-American male slaves. In 2006, there were 846,000 African-American men in jail, on probation, or on parole. Yes, Virginia, the number of African-American men enmeshed in our criminal justice system today is greater than the number of African-American men who were slaves in 1850. The difference is that, in 1850, those 840,000 represented about 88% of the African-American male population, while today that percentage is much smaller–more like 4%. The percentage of white males under supervision of the criminal justice system is….about 0 .6%.
“Gee, why are white guys so much more law-abiding than African-Americans?” We’re not. It’s about who’s enforcing the laws, and which laws they’re choosing to enforce. More on that a little later. But the ones who only go to jail are the lucky ones. That flamingly radical newspaper, USA Today, reports that police killed an average of 96 African-Americans a year between 2007 and 2012, and that doesn’t take into account independent operators like George Zimmerman. By contrast, in the twenty-year period between 1882 (apparently the first year such statistics were gathered) and 1902, there were an average of 92 African-Americans lynched per year. More African-Americans killed by police, usually, for low-level crimes or none at all, than were lynched by mobs in an average year in the late 19th century. What progress! And sure, there are ten times more African-Americans now than there were then, but the similar numbers do have an odd ring, don’t they?
music: Billie Holiday–Strange Fruit
And what kinds of crimes prompted these killings, in which the mob, in the 19th century, or a policeman, in the 21st, decided that someone had done something so heinous, or presented such a clear and present danger, that they needed to be executed on the spot, without benefit of a judge and jury? Just a few of the reasons for lynching in the 19th century: acting suspiciously, quarrelling, insulting a white man/woman, throwing stones, demanding respect. In the 21st century, “acting suspiciously” seems to be the big winner. In Ferguson, Michael Brown scared a policeman. In Dayton, Ohio, John Crawford was killed in a chain store when he picked up a BB gun from the shelf and started walking to the checkout counter with it, apparently with intention to buy. In Cleveland, 12-year old Tamir Rice had a BB pistol in his hand, and the policeman who answered the 911 call shot him dead without asking questions.
That one strikes close to home for me. When I was twelve, in 1960, one of my favorite things to do was “play World War II.” I would take my toy rifle and go out in the park near our home, where I would duck behind logs, slither through the underbrush, and shoot imaginary “Japs” or “Germans” just like the GI heroes of the comic books I read. Sometimes I played with other kids in my neighborhood, sometimes I played alone. I was white and wandered the back part of some pretty big, wild parks, but if I had been African-American, and a policeman had spotted me, I might not be here today.
And then, of course, there’s the recent case in New York, where the police killed Eric Garner for the heinous crime of selling cigarettes. The grand jury didn’t indict any of the cops who overreacted to Garner, but did indict the guy who filmed the murder. Look, I know cigarettes are dangerous, but if you wanna take somebody down for cigarettes, go after Philip Morris, OK? That corporate person is the real villain here!
Just three years ago, the big example of the New York police killing somebody and getting away with it was Kenneth Chamberlain, a former Marine and prison guard, retired, who accidentally set off his life-aid pendant. Somehow the 911 ambulance call turned into the police storming his apartment and shooting him dead. There have been no indictments in that case, either. So, being a senior citizen and accidentally setting off your 911 call button is a reasonable cause for summary execution. Hey, all my fellow senior citizens–better toe the line, especially if you’re black!
Perhaps I’m jumping around a bit too much here. What happened between the lynchings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the bombing of Hiroshima, and summary police executions of African-American men in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that links them?
For one thing, racial separation was built into the law of the land. The Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, upholding “separate but equal” treatment of the races was handed down in 1896, as a 7-1 decision. One of the judges who upheld racial segregation was Edward Douglass White (!), who was a member of the…
Cities all across the country used zoning to maintain racial segregation and allowed racial covenants to be written into real estate contracts, and the federal government did essentially the same thing. When Roosevelt formed the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930’s, as a concession to get the bill passed, racial segregation was written into FHA rules and loan policies. In the long term, this helped lead to the huge difference between white and black wealth in America, as whites’ net worth increased as their homes’ value ballooned, while African-Americans just had to pay more rent, and were thus less able to save money to buy homes or send their children to college. Those “separate but equal” neighborhoods were separate, all right, but not equal. Cities provided fewer services, from trash collection to parks and school funding, to African-American areas. It was we white folks who used our political power to put blacks at a disadvantage every way we could, and who then spread the memes of “lazy black folks” and “welfare queens,” but the truth was that it took all the running an African-American could do just to not fall behind quite so fast.
Orientals fared no better. According to one source,
Discriminatory laws passed during the early l900s denied the Japanese the right to become citizens, to own land, and to marry outside of their race. In addition, they could not buy homes in certain areas and were barred from jobs in certain industries. Some could only send their children to segregated schools, and in 1924, immigration from Japan was halted altogether.
In fact, America as a whole in the 1930s was a place of little tolerance toward people of color. Institutional racism prevented many of them from living in places of their choice or moving about in society at will. Many unions prohibited them from membership. Employers routinely barred Asians and African-Americans from choice jobs. Native Americans lived on reservations in poverty, ignored.
Chinese immigration had already been stopped by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but the 1924 immigration act went further. Not only did it end Japanese immigration to the United States, it essentially turned off Lady Liberty’s lamp and closed her golden door, largely prohibiting anybody who was not from north-western Europe from immigrating to the U.S. In 1952, revisiting these policies after World War II, Congress enacted some largely symbolic changes, but essentially left the “whites only” immigration policy of 1924 intact.
During World War II, Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forced to liquidate their assets, often for pennies on the dollar, and moved to detention camps. While some Germans in America had to deal with internment, our fellow white folks were not treated with the same disdain as the Orientals. A 1948 reparations law was largely symbolic, featuring such zingers as this:
… failure to produce any documentary records demanded by the government was punishable by a $10,000 fine and five years imprisonment. Victims who had already lost thousands of dollars and several years of liberty to the federal government did not rush to take advantage of the offer. Those who did make claims often received compensation far below actual loss.
A less draconian reparations program did not come until the late eighties, when Congress granted the princely sum of $20,000 to each person who had been interned.
How can we be sure the motivation for the removal of all Japanese from the U.S. Pacific coast was motivated by race prejudice, and not by genuine security considerations? Here’s a quote from Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, who headed the U.S. Western command at the time:
I don’t want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.
Given the prevalence of attitudes like that (President Roosevelt signed off on Japanese removal after reading Dewitt’s memo, which was labelled “top secret.”), it’s easy to see why nobody in the U.S. military had any serious qualms about wiping Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map.
I think that I have given a pretty good overview of how pervasively racist American society really is, although I haven’t even touched the way in which the wealthy classes encouraged racism as a way to divide the poor and set them fighting each other instead of uniting against the wealthy, nor have I looked at the spectrum of “isms” that racism is part of–such “isms” as sexism, nationalism, and speciesism. That will have to wait.. The discrimination that African-Americans are protesting in Ferguson, and elsewhere, is not some figment of their imaginations, nor is it something they have brought on themselves. A society is racist by dint of many individuals in that society having a racist mindset, and these individuals will be widely distributed, turning up in the schools, the political institutions, and the police departments, among other places. It is the police bias, and the consequent mistreatment of African-Americans that bias engenders, that has sparked the current round of protests. The question, then, is: what can be done to transform racist thinking, which is all too often subconscious, to the point that even people who think they are not racists exhibit prejudice?
How pervasive is racism? I took a test designed to measure subconscious racial bias, and, much to my surprise, I am strongly biased. I live in a mostly African-American part of town, and the only people who have ever given me trouble here have been white. Food for thought. One student of this phenomenon, Keith Payne of the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill, suggests
you can do something very simple to fight prejudice: Trick your brain….By deliberately thinking a thought that is directly counter to widespread stereotypes, you can break normal patterns of association. What counts as counterstereotypical? Well, Payne’s study found that when research subjects were instructed to think the word “safe” whenever they saw a black face—undermining the stereotypical association between black people and danger—they were 10 percent less likely than those in a control group to misidentify a gun in the Weapons Identification Task.
I’m going to try that next time I go to my local grocery store. Changing the world, one mind at a time, beginning with my own…..14
music: Gregory Porter–1960 What?
meanwhile, back to the big picture.
At a “deep green” level, the orientation of the police needs to change. While they are paid by us, the people, they are hired by governments that are, all too often, subservient to corporate interests, and used to enforce laws that protect corporate interests, rather than being cast as peace officers and public servants whose job it is to help keep things peaceful by resolving problems, and who should view arrest, let alone violence, as the last and least desirable option, not the first. From a “deep green” perspective, peace officers should be members of the communities they serve, people who know their neighbors and their neighborhood, who regularly participate in community activities as community members, not just as enforcers and authority figures.
Absent such a revolution, there are active programs to help police recognize and overcome their subconscious biases. One such program is called “Fair and Impartial Policing.” It addresses not overt, conscious racism, but subconscious racism–not what we think, but the matrix that forms our thinking. Part of what makes it effective is that it presumes the good will of those it addresses. It has gotten good marks from most of the people who have taken the “course,” and is endorsed–and being implemented–by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Another DOJ-supported effort is The Center for Policing Equity, which addresses policing techniques rather than attitudes, changing the way police operate so that, for example, adrenaline-charged officers are not making life-and-death decisions about the person they have been chasing.
Changing some policemens’ attitudes about the people they deal with won’t change the way police are used to protect corporate interests, but there’s an interesting corollary to the research that’s been done on subconscious bias: reducing subconscious bias increases creativity, and if there’s anything we as a species need to meet the challenge of our deepening crisis, it is creative thinking. Peace officers who think creatively are more likely to question their roles as upholders of corporate hegemony, and the only thing that might end corporate hegemony before it results in total societal collapse iswhat happened in the Soviet Union/Eastern Bloc collapse in 1991, when those whose duty it was to enforce the will of their superiors lost faith in those superiors and the wisdom of their orders, and just walked away from upholding an old order that no longer functioned. One mind at a time changes, but nothing seems to change, until a certain critical mass accumulates, and then everything changes, and nobody saw it coming.
There’s no point in being pessimistic. The future hasn’t happened yet.
music: Mothers of Invention Trouble Comin‘ Every Day