Friday, October 11, 2013

The Question of Civilization

Originally posted at the Hampton Institute

Civilized. It is a word that has come to mean cultural norms, the manner in which governments rule, and how people act in our interactions with one another. However, there are levels within our civilization and it is interesting to see how some groups and people are included in this idea while others are excluded and ignored.

When regarding ideas of what is civilized, it usually turns into discussions of white culture and how whites are superior to every other ethnicity. European-based ideas of what art, music, and literature are consistently touted in society as being of the highest quality. One only needs to look at what the US considers classical literature and they will see that the overwhelming amount of work is by white men, as are all the movies and art. A counterargument to this may be that the majority of the people at the time were white, thus what was one to expect? Yet, this does not stand as times change and with it so do our views of what is important and what is not. While some may cite that there are entire studies based solely on minority groups, this still ignores the fact that white culture is still viewed today as superior to all others and that view is consistently reinforced in our society. To this day, we still see that the white male dominated arts is considered American classics and part of ‘civilized’ culture whereas the likes of James Baldwin is left out.

However, it is not just in the arts where groups of people are left out, but in everyday dialogue. Minorities, especially black people, are viewed as ‘uncivilized,’ from our music, which has been accused of contributing to violence[1], to our hairstyles which have been portrayed as barbaric in some instances.[2] This consistent view of non-European people as an ‘other’ and as being uncivilized results in stereotypes that have very real consequences, such as not feeling the need to learn about other cultures. For example, “if a person believes all Arab Americans are terrorists, that person need not learn anything more about Arab culture or people.”[3] Besides contributing to ignorance, it allows for the horrors that were perpetuated by white Americans, such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and the internment of Japanese-Americans is mentioned, however those past transgressions are largely ignored as they are not spoken of often, rather being largely eclipsed by discussions praising white culture.

While it is rather obvious that the frequent praise of whites as being the leading figures in American culture ignores minorities, such admiration also harms whites as they hold these ideas as being the standard and are reluctant to seek out and explore other cultures and groups that are different from their own. A potential result of such reluctance is to have a rather narrow view of the world, such as white Americans believing that they are victims of reverse racism, despite the fact that “statistically, African-Americans have far less opportunities handed to them, they generate less income than white Americans, own less homes, and have a much higher chance of living in poverty than non-black Americans.”[4] Programs such as affirmative action are often cited, however, the fact is that white women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action, not racial minorities as “study after study shows that affirmative action helps white women as much or even more than it helps men and women of color.”[5]

Yet, this idea of the white man being superior and the most civilized does not just extend to the United States, but to the world at large. It can easily be found in our language. Just examine the terms ‘Western civilization’ and ‘the Western world.’ When we say these phrases, we are in actuality referring to western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Such terminology in both everyday language and in history books ignores the cultures and viewpoints of Latin American and indigenous peoples. It effectively erases them and renders them nothing but side characters and extras in the great drama that is the story of humanity.

Such attitudes also carry over the other parts of the world, especially with regards to Africa and the Middle East. With regards to Africa, we still view the entire continent as nothing but lions and jungles for the most part, save South Africa. There is a knowledge that the continent is racked by political, ethnic, and economic turmoil, which often turns into violent conflicts. However, certain facts are ignored, such as that the legacy of colonialism and the continuation of neo-colonialism are major contributors to Africa’s current situation. The neo-colonialism can be seen in the form of the global land grab and its affect on Africans[6] and the intervention of France in the ongoing conflict in Mali.[7] The same goes for the Middle East, where it is, for the most part, viewed as a region of nothing but Islamic religious fanatics that do nothing but fight.

By viewing such regions as ‘uncivilized,’ just as with viewing minorities in the US through a stereotypical lens, one of the effects are that such thinking allows the horrors committed by whites to be ignored. The violent history of colonialism and imperialism on the African and Middle East regions are washed away and the people are blamed for their current predicament rather than acknowledging that the situation is much more complex. We view Africa as a grossly underdeveloped continent where people live in huts, but never ask questions such as these: Which is more uncivilized, living in a hut or committing genocide and cutting off people’s hands to get at the resources near those huts?[8] For the latter is precisely what was done in the Congo by Belgium. The views of ‘uncivilized’ societies are in many cases detached from reality as they ignore other factors, yet it reveals the fact that in order for ‘the west’ to be viewed as superior, it requires a suspension of factoring in the political and economic histories into the overall narrative.

Overall, by focusing solely on whites as being ‘civilized’ it has the effect of not only minimizing other cultures and groups, but delegitimizes them as well. This is dangerous as it allows stereotypes and ignorance to flourish, rather than encouraging inquiry and diversity. In order to actually begin to view the world as it is, rather than through a race-based lens, we need to begin to deconstruct these notions of the ‘superiority’ of ‘western civilization’ in ourselves and those around us, for only then can be start to see the world through a different lens.


1: Dan Frosch, “Colorado Police Link Rise in Violence to Music,” New York Times, September 3, 2007 (

2: Tiffany Hsu, “Nivea's 're-civilize' ad called racist; company apologizes,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2011 (

3: Kevin Lause, Jack Nachbar, Popular Culture: An Introductory Text (Bowling Green, Ohio:  Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1992), pg 244

4: Nichole Jaworski, “Racism In America: White Americans Believe They Are Victims Of Reverse Racism,” CBS Charlotte, April 17, 2013 (

5: Sally Kohn, “Affirmative Action Has Helped White Women More Than Anyone,” Time, June 17, 2013 (

6: Richard Schiffman, Hunger, Food Security, and the African Land Grab, Ethics and International Affairs, (September 13, 2013)

7: Devon Douglas-Bowers, Rebels, Resources and Refugees: The Conflict in Mali, The Hampton Institute, (August 21, 2013)

8: Yale University Genocide Studies Program, Congo Free State, 1885-1908,

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Cruel Irony of Austerity

Given the current government shutdown, impending battle over the debt ceiling, and the horrible effects of sequestration, I thought that it would be relevant to publish an article I wrote two years ago in regards to the irony of austerity measures as the issues are still very much with us.

For quite some time now the United States has had a mountain of debt which has grown to the point where it is now unpayable. Only recently, (since Obama came into office and the Tea Party came about) has the federal government been paying attention to its spending rates. The main solution that has been pushed by the Republicans is austerity. Those in power act as if these cuts will suddenly cure all the nation’s economic woes, while ignoring the massive ‘defense’ budget. It seems that our representatives either are not aware of or are ignoring just how inhumane and ironic austerity is.


Recently, Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, sent a message to all of its public teachers telling them that they could potentially be laid off by year’s end. The local government reasoned that it was necessary “because of the dire fiscal straits that both Providence and its school system are in.”[1] This puts the education of many school children at risk. The effects of these cuts will most likely be larger class sizes and a lower quality of education for attendees of public schools

Also, the federal government is planning to cut Pell Grants, which aid many low-income college students in paying for their education. This proposal is actually unfair in that it “hurts Pell Grant funding more severely than other budget items"[2] and the current increase is only to make up for the increases that should have happened during the Bush administration. Due to these Pell Grant cuts and increases in college tuition costs, many low-income college students may very well be forced to drop out.

These cuts are not only inhumane in that they make the suffering of the poor the solution to the current problems, but are also ironic. The right-wing wants to see an economically and militarily strong America, yet how does one expect America to be either when its young are uneducated?

Social Security

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill are up in arms, arguing that Social Security has to be cut in order to balance the budget. They completely ignore the importance Social Security to the elderly, especially those of color. Social Security provides most retirees with about two-thirds of their income, but with people of color, it provides 90% of all income.[3] In advocating cuts to Social Security, both political parties are advocating a war on not only poor people, but a war that mainly targets people of color.

Yet, the most shocking part is that Republicans and the Democrats are not only willing to let other people’s parents and grandparents suffer, but are willing to let the young suffer as well. The people who will suffer the most from an increase in the retirement age is this generation of young people, who will find that they will have to work more and more years just to be eligible for Social Security benefits.

When taking into account the employment situation of those who receive Social Security, the predicament for those affected becomes even more ironic. One proposal virtually forces the elderly to go and find a job in order to be able to support themselves, while the other proposal forces younger people to work for more years. Yet both are going to have to deal with the Great Recession and its main effect: little to no job growth.

What this essentially does is subject both old and young to a meager existence, at the beck and call of corporations who can fire them at any moment, knowing that they (the corporations) have a virtually limitless labor pool to draw from.

Medicare and Medicaid

Everyone, from the President to the newest House member has been pressing for cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. They say that it is the main problem with our budget and that, just like with all other social programs, we just can’t keep funding them, lest we eventually go bankrupt. According to the latest information, 16% of the population is on Medicare[4] while 21% is on Medicaid.[5] Even if only a small amount of the funding is affected, this will have serious effects as the health care of both seniors and the poor is taken out from under their feet. Once again, as with Social Security, we see the irony in this. Since the poor and elderly will have no health insurance, the only way they’ll be able to get health insurance is by going back to work, yet there are so few jobs available.

Food Assistance

With assisting the poor in getting access to food, it seems that in this too, the government has decided that it would be best to cut funding. An article in the Iowa Independent states “The cliff in food stamps means that one month; a family will receive a set amount of money, about $4.50 per person per day. The next month, they will get less.” [6](emphasis added) In good economic conditions, that amount would barely feed a family for a month and this is even truer today, when one looks at rising food costs! It is impossible for anyone to survive on such a meager income. The irony is that this may very well create criminal elements in society where there were none before, as people turn to crime to fill their stomachs. This irony becomes stronger when one considers that there was a 14% increase in the number of food stamp recipients last year.[7]

The most ironic part of austerity measures, though, is how they create a situation where the public is willing to fight back and rally against the destruction of their lives. The elite have a perception that they are invulnerable and that their intelligence is second to none, yet they are unable to realize that the very things they are doing to shore up revenues in the short-term will be their long-term downfall.


 1: Tami Luhby, “All Providence teachers receive dismissal notices,” CNN Money, February 23, 2011 (

2: Mark Kantrowitz, “Congress Proposes Big Cuts in Pell Grants,” Fastweb, February 11, 2011 (

 3: National Senior Citizens Law Center, Social Security Cuts Would Hurt Lower-Income Adults, (December 2, 2010)

4: Kaiser Family Foundation, Medicare Beneficiaries as a Percent of Total Population,

5: Kaiser Family Foundation, Medicaid Enrollment as a Percent of Total Population,

6: Annie Lowrey, “The Real Impact of Cutting Food Stamps,” Iowa Independent, September 29, 2010 (

7: Walter Smolarek, “Number of Food Stamp Recipients Increased 14 Percent in 2010,” Liberation, February 17, 2011 (