Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Matter of Black and White

Lots of foreign nationals struggle with trying to understand Americans and the United States. For those who travel here, I am reminded of the four blind men who, through touch alone, first encounter an elephant, each believing that the elephant part they have experienced defines the entire animal. Among those who have vacationed here, you get the standard New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco experience. Or the Miami, Los Angeles, Hawaii variation. But Kansas City or Cleveland, Hartford or Cheyenne… not so much.
They cannot conceive of a modern, civilized democracy obsessed with gun ownership, despite mass shootings. States promulgating open carry or the right to concealed weapons remain a mystery to them. We’re pretty much alone among democracies with such unrestricted access to weapons. Foreigners who mostly visit our big cities cannot fathom why states with vast rural tracts of land have determined gun ownership values.
Likewise, they have trouble understanding why a country with an African-American president has such a horrible reputation for how it treats its black citizens or how a nation of immigrants has a mainstream presidential candidate whose main platform is profoundly anti-immigrant and deeply isolationist. Why didn’t the election of Barack Obama end that practice?
Although the U.K. has just experienced its own bout with anti-immigration sentiments, apparently one of the key driving forces that seal the Brexit victory, it’s citizens still remain puzzled at the schisms – perhaps even chasms – that have fractured the United States into seemingly irreconcilable factions. Recently, the BBC (June 16th) noted:
“The concept of there being ‘two Americas’ is almost as old as the nation itself… From the outset there were the landowners, the ruling class - the ‘haves.’ And then there were the have-nots… That divide has been economic but also racial, with minorities claiming a disproportionately small share of the nation's substantial wealth… And yet, a 2013 Pew Research Center study showed that half of white Americans surveyed do not feel that African Americans are treated less fairly by the police, employers, doctors and others. Only 13% of blacks felt the same way.”
Income inequality in the United States is also a story that makes the Chinese “central planning by appointed and not popularly-elected officials” form of government seem more appealing to younger nations trying to find a path towards economic success than an American-style democracy. Sure they are aware of the Chinese billionaires, but they are impressed with the fact that the poverty rate in the People’s Republic dropped from 60% in 1990 to around 12% in 2010 (based on a United Nations “progress report”).
Meanwhile, in the “democratic” poster-nation, the United States, the middle class is contracting, the number of poor people is growing and income inequality is the worst in the developed world. And the democracies we fomented in Iraq and Afghanistan have unraveled and enabled some of the highest levels of corruption on earth.
According to, 46% of the world’s millionaires come from the United States with the worst skew of income inequality on the planet. See the above chart (based on QECD data) to see how bad that American income split really is.
So here’s a little challenge for my blog fans. Assume you have to address each of the above issues and explain them to a foreign national who is puzzled as how such realities have happened in biggest democracy in the Western world. What explanations would you give?
I’m Peter Dekom, and I constantly have to try and explain our oddities and internal inconsistencies to foreigner all the time.

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