Saturday, August 30, 2008

Are they Really African-Americans?

Is Barack Obama black? Is he African-American? He, himself, has used both those terms interchangeably to characterize is own race. Two-thirds of blacks also label him as African-American. But only slightly more than half of white Americans call him that, preferring instead to refer to Obama as biracial or mixed race.

Unlike the vast majority of blacks in America today, Barack Obama can legitimately call himself an African-American, because his father was Kenyan. Most blacks have never even visited Africa, let alone been born there, or even had parents who were born there.

Here is a case in point. A college professor, on the first day of class, introduced himself and presented a brief biography, as many professors often do. Among other things, this lily-white professor said that he was an African-American.

One of the black students in his class blurted out that he didn’t think that remark was funny and, in fact, was offensive. Was he making fun of African-Americans?

The professor responded with a question: “Have you ever been to Africa?” The student’s answer was no. The professor continued: “Were your parents or grandparents from Africa?” The student responded in the negative. “Can you trace any of your ancestors to Africa?” The student said he didn’t know.

The professor explained that he was born in South Africa and spent his childhood there, so he was, indeed, African. He then immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. So he is now an American. He can very rightfully refer to himself as being an African-American.

So, he told the young black student, “I am an African-American, but you, sir, are not.”

The term African-American was popularized by Jesse Jackson in the 1980s. It was an attempt by people of color to find a descriptor for themselves, instead of having to rely on the often racially-charged descriptors that had been given to them by white people.

During the early and middle years of the 20th century, blacks were referred to as Negros and colored people. But to use the term black, was offensive. That changed in the 1960s as young, rebellious colored people began to embrace the term black. Their slogan was Black is beautiful. And they used it in defiance in phrases such as black power.

But Jackson wanted to use a descriptor similar to what other ethnic people had been using forever. Americans of obvious German ancestry called themselves German-Americans. There were Dutch-Americans and Italian-American’s too. So Jackson started using the term African-American to refer to his own people. It caught on.

Today, the terms black and African-American are used interchangeably. But if there must be a term at all, it should probably be black. Just like the professor from South Africa is a real African-American and most American blacks are not, what would you call an American with Egyptian ancestry? He is an Egyptian-American but he is also an African-American, since Egypt is in Africa. Other ethnic groups get to use one country to describe their ancestry; blacks get to use a whole continent.

And what about the few native Australians who are now Americans? Just because they are black, are they lumped in with the others and wrongfully referred to as African-Americans even though they have zero ancestors from anywhere in Africa?

The point to all this is that people who were born in America, and whose parents and grandparents were born in America, are Americans. Regardless of their color, they are Americans, not African-Americans.

The newspaper headlines are quick to point out the historic nature of having the first African-American nominated for president, just like they were all over the story about Tony Dungy being the first black NFL coach to win a Super Bowl. It’s historic only in the same sense that it was historic when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president. It’s worth an asterisk, but not much more.

If we ever want to put racial problems aside in this country, we are going to have to stop using labels to identify different races, except perhaps to identify someone to a police sketch artist.

When a redhead or a blond wins a championship, we don’t refer to them by their hair color. Why do we have to refer to them by their race, even if it is historic?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Labor Day Marks Unofficial End of Summer

Labor Day is the first Monday in September, which means that this year it is on the first, next Monday. Over the years, it has evolved from a purely labor union celebration into a general "last fling of summer" festival.

It grew out of a celebration and parade in honor of the working class by the Knights of Labor in 1882 in New York. In 1884, the Knights held a large parade in New York City celebrating the working class. The parade was held on the first Monday in September. The Knights passed a resolution to hold all future parades on the same day, designated by them as Labor Day.

The Socialist Party held a similar celebration of the working class on May 1. This date eventually became known as May Day, and was celebrated by Socialists and Communists in commemoration of the working man. In the U.S., the first Monday in September was selected to reject any identification with Communism.

In the late 1880s, labor organizations began to lobby various state legislatures for recognition of Labor Day as an official state holiday. The first states to declare it a state holiday in, 1887, were Oregon, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Then, in 1894, Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day as an official national holiday.

Today, Labor Day is observed not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, and in other industrialized nations. While it is a general holiday in the United States, its roots in the working class remain clearer in European countries.

It has come to be recognized in the U.S. not only as a celebration of the working class, but even more so as the unofficial end of the summer season. In the northern half of the U.S. at least, the summer vacation season begins with Memorial Day and ends with Labor Day.

Many colleges and some secondary and elementary schools begin classes immediately after Labor Day.

State parks, swimming pools, and campgrounds are all quite busy on Labor Day, as vacationers take one last advantage of the waning hot season. September is the month that marks the beginning of autumn. And, because of that, the average daytime maximum temperatures take a plunge during the month in most of the U.S.

In the nineteenth century, laborers began to organize themselves into unions in order to leverage themselves against the greedy companies they worked for, which often made them work for low pay in nearly intolerable conditions. But, for the most part, labor unions are still stuck in the past, favoring an adversarial relationship with management.

In countries like Japan, unions are formed to foster communication between labor and management in order to improve productivity and fairness. That’s the way unions ought to operate in the U.S. as a few already do. Mostly, though, since the 1930s, labor unions have contributed negatively to the U.S. economy, driving prices way up and forcing companies to outsource or move overseas.

Still, they have a place. They do offer protection and backing of individual employees in grievances with management, for example.

Labor Day is as it should be in the U.S., a festivity marking the waning days of summer, not so much a celebration of labor unions, despite the holiday’s origins.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

This Year I Vow to be Meaner

To students and teachers, the 75 days or so between May 31 and August 13 mean they have more choices than they do the rest of the year, and more choices than most workers employed in year-round jobs. I spent 16 years of my life as a full-time student. I’ve spent another 16 years as a teacher. That’s 32 years of my life when, during the summer, I had some lovely choices.

I could choose to go back to school during summer to pick up some more college credits or to work on my master’s degree. I made those choices early on, so I no longer need to worry about whether or not to choose taking more classes. I don’t need them so I won’t take them.

I could choose whether or not to get a summer job to supplement my income. Although I really would like to get more money, I still usually choose not to go back to work. I simply enjoy my free time and work would mess with that.

So, during most summers when I’ve been a teacher, I can choose when to take a vacation, what time to get out of bed, when to eat, and how long to stay up at night. I usually eat, sleep, and wake up at about the same time, but if I wanted to change my routine, I could do it. Nobody’s stopping me, not even my boss.

But, alas, summer is over. Or at least my summer break is over. And now, I don’t have much choice anymore. I have to get up at a certain time (early). And that forces me to go to bed at a certain time. It means I can’t eat when I want or take a vacation when I want. I have to follow the school’s schedule and calendar.

Yes, I know, nobody feels sorry for me because I actually have to go to work every Monday through Friday. Because most people don’t get summers off anyway, except for two or three weeks for vacation. But remember, I have only taught for 16 years of my adult life. That leaves 14 years in which I had a regular, year-round job. So I’ve spent almost as much time working in the summer as I have working with summers off. Trust me; it’s better to have summers off.

But it’s not all so bad, going back to school. Our school building was being renovated over that last three years, and it’s virtually finished now. So everybody has nice clean, modern classrooms with air conditioning. Well, that’s the theory. The brand new air conditioning in my room isn’t working.

There is also a chance to start over with a new group of students. It’s an opportunity to fix the things you knew you were doing wrong the year before. It’s tough to change what kind of teacher you are in the middle of the year, because all the students already know. But with a new group, you can fool them into thinking you’re a lot meaner than you really are. The rule often quoted is, don’t even smile until November. I’ve always smiled too early and have gotten burned because of it.

This year, no smiling. It’s tough love from me from now on. I’ve decided to be the traditional mean teacher this year, but very fair. Good students, bad students, girls, or boys, it doesn’t matter. Everyone must follow the rules or be equally treated to after-school detention. And what if they don’t show up? They don’t get to come back to my class until they do. They can sit in the dean’s office instead.

I can justify my new-found meanness with the disclaimer that science class is for learning about science, so no shenanigans. I’ll let you know how it goes by the time Christmas vacation arrives. We’ll see if I’m smiling by then.

At any rate, I can’t wait for Labor Day. Plus there are only 173 more school days until summer break, and counting.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

It's Pollution that is Often Overlooked: Bad Music

There are some people who do certain things that tend to annoy other people. Most of the time people get annoyed because someone else has encroached upon their senses in a negative manner. For example, if someone who is talking to you has just eaten sardines and onions, that could be annoying.

Each person has his own private space around his body that he does not like other people to enter into unless invited. The size of this private space varies with the person. Most people are annoyed, for example, if someone gets right up into their faces to speak, even without the bad breath.

It also doesn't necessarily have to be the other person's body that invades your space. A non-smoker may feel violated if smoke is blown his way from a smoker several feet away in the same room. The smoke becomes an extension of the smoker.

In the same way, if a person plays his stereo too loudly, the loud sounds may violate another person's space. Just read the police reports each week for a clue as to the number of people who become annoyed at other people's loud music.

I love music, and I play it in my car as well as my home. I even enjoy listening to it with the volume up. But common courtesy dictates that anyone listening to music should keep the volume low enough so as not to disturb the people in the next town.

I felt moved to bring up the subject of noise pollution at this time because I, myself, have been the victim of other people's obsession with loud music. The worst part is, I'm not that fond of the type of music that is generally boomed around the neighborhood.

I like a wide variety of music, from country to classical, but I don’t like all country, not even most of it, and I don’t like all classical. Basically, I believe that music should show some semblance of the intelligence of the lyricist and the composer, which eliminates much of country music and every ounce of rap music that was ever created.

Now, before I offend the country music fans, let me say that a good deal of country music is very pleasant to listen to. I especially enjoy ballads and slow songs, but without that annoying Texas drawl that permeates the genre today. I also enjoy acoustic music, both instrumental and vocal. (If I have offended rap music fans, well, I don't really care!)

But people have different tastes in music, which explains why there are so many different genres of it. That’s fine, though. It’s not so much the type of music I’m talking about here, but the loudness.

Those music lovers who insist on pumping every ounce of wattage they can into giant speakers that sit in the back seats of their cars ought to realize two important things. They are damaging their own hearing; that's a fact. And that only means that they will need to turn up the stuff even louder as time goes by.

Secondly, they are being totally insensitive and rude to everybody who does not care for loud booming noises or rattling windows. Unfortunately, those people guilty of noise crimes (yes, there is an ordinance), and who lack the common courtesy of showing a little respect for others are the same people who probably lack enough intelligence to read a blog, so they probably won't get the message here. Maybe if you know someone like that you could tell them for me!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Don't Mess with My Pursuit of Happiness

Our country was founded on the principals of liberty. It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. In addition to our very lives, the other unalienable rights enumerated on that parchment are liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Liberty, freedom, means different things to different people. But from the birth of our nation to today, the government has done its very best to restrict individual freedoms, ostensibly to protect society from itself. The total opposite of freedom is slavery, and although the Declaration of Independence starts out by proclaiming that all men are created equal, we had slavery until 1862, almost a century after that document was penned.

We now live in, according to the song lyrics, the land of the free and the home of the brave. I won’t argue the bravery of the men and women who were forced into fighting our meaningless political wars. I will argue that we are not as free as we should be.

Liberty means to me what it meant to many of our Founding Fathers. To be free means that one has the right to do whatever one wishes, as long as it doesn’t limit the rights of others to do the same thing. In other words, we all should have the right to do whatever we want as long as it does not directly harm anybody else.

But how many laws do we have on the books that are meant to protect us from ourselves? Too many, is the answer to that question. Let me make this clear: I am not defending, nor have I ever participated in, drug use or prostitution. I don’t like the idea of a woman having an abortion because she was too shortsighted to use birth control. But I will stand up and defend anybody else’s right to participate in any of these activities, only one of which is currently legal, to the chagrin of most religious conservatives.

The problem in this country is that too many special interest groups want to draw their own moral line for everybody else. Prostitution steps over someone’s moral boundary and should therefore be illegal. In most states, it is illegal, but it wasn’t always so. Prostitution was perfectly legal until the early years of the twentieth century when religious fundamentalists started to assert their self-professed superior morality on the nation’s lawmakers.

If two consenting adults meet in a hotel lobby and decide to go up to a room and have sex, that’s legal. But if one of them pays the other for the sex, that is illegal. They are still two consenting adults doing what they have agreed to do. It is one person’s money and the other’s own body. Why is that any of the government’s business? Make it legal and you get rid of the seedy nature of the world’s oldest profession. Regulate it, tax it, and clean it up and there would be no need for pimps and little risk of spreading disease.

What about illicit drugs? We spend billions of dollars, taxpayer’s money, in this country fighting the war on drugs. This is a war that can never be won. Whether it is unlawful or not, those who want to take drugs are going to. I don’t know of anyone who has made the decision not to do marijuana just because it was against the law.

Legalize the recreational drugs, regulate their distribution, tax their sale, and we eliminate the crime syndicates that we’re wasting our tax money trying to fight. Kids are not going to start taking them all of a sudden because they are legal. Tobacco products and alcohol are two legal recreational drugs that kids are not legally allowed to use or buy. Marijuana should be in the same category, legal except to minors.

We could use those billions of dollars we save on the war on drugs we can’t win to create an education campaign on the harmful effects of drugs, including the now-legal ones. We would get rid of the drug cartels and the organized crime that surrounds the distribution of marijuana and cocaine.

But, again, prostitution and marijuana remain illegal, not because it makes logical sense, but because our government doesn’t want to look like it supports morally questionable activities. It all comes down to someone else’s moral line.

There is a clear boundary where that line should be drawn. If my actions harm another person, then those actions should be illegal. If they harm no one, or harm only myself, I should have the legal right to engage in that activity, period. It is my pursuit of happiness.