Friday, March 27, 2009

History from the bottom up

Stephen Pimpare, A People's History of Poverty in America (The New Press People's Histories, 2008) series editor Howard Zinn (Hardcover - Nov 17, 2008)

Walter Benjamin, famously noted that "progress" is the storm irresistibly propelling us into the future, to which our backs are turned, piling wreckage upon wreckage in front of our feet.

Abandon all hope of progress when you enter Pimpare's world of poverty. Here is what Pimpare has to say about progress.

"Well the way that the history of poverty is usually told is as much other history is told. It’s the history of great men and occasionally great women, right? So we’ll talk about Jane Addams or FDR or LBJ, or alternatively, we’ll talk about moments of state or national policy innovation. So we’ll focus on state-level innovations of the Progressive Era or of the New Deal programs of the 1930s or of the Great Society programs of the 1960s.

What I have done in this book is to ask, what happens if instead of asking “How has policy changed over time?” we invert our analysis and ask the question “How has the experience of being poor and in need changed over time?” And one of the consequences I argue of doing that is, among other things, instead of comforting ourselves with a relatively progressive story, a forward-moving story, an evolutionary story, that no matter how bad things may be at any given moment in time, they have in fact gotten better, what I argue is in fact the constants, the consistency of that experience of poverty over the course of American history has changed much less than we might like to believe."

According to Pimpare:
Among "advanced" nations, we have the highest of rates of poverty; the highest rates of childhood poverty; the second highest rates of elderly poverty; the highest rates of long-term poverty; of permanent poverty and income inequality. We boast the highest rates of incarceration; the highest rates of health-care costs and the highest CEO pay. At the same time, only Australia and New Zealand have longer average work weeks. We have one of the highest rates of infant mortality with Taiwan, Belgium, Cuba and the Czech Republic all showing lower rates of infant mortality than the US.

At the same time, the United States ranks among the very lowest for high school graduation, health-care coverage, mandated vacation and paid parental leave, voter participation, women in the national legislature, working-class wages, living standards among those at the bottom, and life expectancy. A 2005 study by Save the Children found ten countries in which mothers and their children fare better than in the United States. The infant mortality rate for African Americans in Washington, D.C., is higher than in the poor Indian state of Karala, and the overall infant death rate in the United States is the same as in Malaysia. Men in Bangladesh stand it better chance of surviving to age sixty-five than black men in Harlem. There is much that is exceptional about the United States, much that is extraordinary and worthy of celebration, but many Americans, perhaps /8/ most, would be better off elsewhere. As social-welfare analyst David Wagner has observed, it may be that our self-congratulatory rhetoric, what he calls our "virtue talk," obscures the less noble reality: Americans do less for the least among us than do other Western industrialized nations. (Introduction, p. 8.)

Medical Apartheid

I would like to recommend a few relatively new books that are on my desk waiting for a review to be posted on our ISAR website.

Harriet Washington has written an astonishing history of racism in the medical profession from colonial times to the present.

Book details:
Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (Random House 2006)

ISBN: 978-0-385-50993-0 (0-385-50993-6

You can listen to an interview of the author on Democracy Now:

Many people believe that the history of racism is a history of a progression away from racism and towards greater tolerance. There is little evidence of progress in this monograph.

The ISAR Blog

For those not familiar with ISAR, an introduction.
Our website:

The Institute for the Study of Academic Racism (ISAR) at Ferris State University is a non-profit educational foundation that acts as a resource service for students, academics, journalists, legislators and civil rights activists.

ISAR monitors changing intellectual trends in academic racism, biological determinism, and eugenics. ISAR's investigative work has resulted in feature articles in such prominent newspapers and magazines as the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Science Magazine. ISAR staff have worked with Congress and the Justice Department as well as national civil rights organizations. The institute promotes research in academic racism by posting extensive bibliographies and maintaining an on-line archive of primary and secondary sources.

The Institute encourages an activist approach to understanding. It challenges students to advance the cause of social justice by countering the intellectual and ideological foundations of prejudice. ISAR's goal is to engage students in projects that result in both a lasting contribution to human knowledge as well as real and immediate social change. One such project organized by students at the University of Hawaii -- a study of Stanley Porteus (1883-1972), a psychologist and academic advocate of segregation and apartheid, resulted in a unanimous vote by the UH Board of Regents in April, 1998 to de-name Porteus Hall. The project involved an educational campaign aimed at the campus community as well as the creation of an on-line archive of permanent historical value. Students learned not only academic and political skills, they learned how to use their academic skills to bring about real social change.

In 1991, ISAR director and founder, Dr. Barry Mehler, presented a report on the international eugenics movement at the Winston Institute's International Congress on Discrimination and Conflict in Jerusalem, Israel. In 1993, ISAR presented a report on 'Race, Law and the Political Process' to the National Executive Committee of the Anti-Defamation League. In 1994, ISAR helped prepare the 'Final Report of the McIntosh Commission on Fair Play in Student-Athlete Admissions' which was submitted to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, and Competitiveness, chaired by then Congresswoman Cardiss Collins. In 1997, ISAR's report on psychologist Raymond B. Cattell was the subject of extensive comment in the international press.