Thursday, 28 May 2015

U.S. Racial Unrest Quizlet

Here's the Quizlet for the entries about Baltimore.

As always, there are many words you can use in other contexts.

You can also test yourself on the words as you learn them… words really are fun!

Baltimore Unrest I: Background of Racism in the U.S.

For almost a year, in too many places in the U.S., racial unrest has been boiling over like untended rice on a hot stove. Street violence has followed confrontations with police where black men--often more boys than men--have died. The reasons for this cycle are complex.
Racism exists everywhere during every epoch. But in the U.S., the racism related to African-Americans is complicated by the legacy of slavery. The slave trade helped build the economy of the nation; slavery itself was critical to the growth of the great cotton and tobacco plantations of the southern states. The U.S. Civil War was mostly, if not entirely, about whether the South could keep its slave-based economy.
       Michelle Obama recently reminded us of how discrimination has been justified: "There were the so-called scientific studies that said that black men's brains were smaller than white men's. Official Army reports stated that black soldiers were 'childlike,' 'shiftless,' 'unmoral and untruthful,' and as one quote stated, 'if fed, loyal and compliant.'"
These same "arguments" were used to justify slavery: it was okay because blacks were somehow less "human," or at least, less capable, than whites, so in return for their feeding and care, they could be put to work for whites, much like domestic animals. Another view was a Biblical justification: Noah's son Ham--identified as black--was a degenerate and thus his descendants were cursed with serving others forever.
Segregation in Practice
         The reconstruction of the South (that is, the southern states that formed the Confederacy and tried to win independence from the United States, which was called the Union) after the Civil War wasn't our country's finest moment. Speculation, corruption and manipulation by mostly northern profiteers was mostly uncontrolled. Often former slaves were used as "straw men" to hold office or to let the speculators take economic advantage of programs intended to help former slaves build new lives.
         The abuses of reconstruction led to instability, which in turn, led to fear. The first Ku Klux Klan was born in 1865 as an attempt to protect whites from the perceived black threat--and to restore white supremacy. It terrorized blacks. However, by 1872, between legal action against it and its own internal corruption, it was broken--although it would revive.
Nevertheless, the South managed to keep its black population segregated and disadvantaged for almost a century after the Civil War.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the United States resulted in several laws that provided equal access for blacks (and other minorities) to education, housing, jobs, and most importantly, the vote. The laws were intended to "level the playing field" and prevent discrimination against minorities.
But attitudes on the street are hard to change. Especially if equal access means that there is more competition for limited jobs and housing, and minorities are given an edge to compensate for past discrimination.

Note: the words in bold type can be found in the Quizlet titled "U.S. Racial Unrest."

Baltimore Unrest II: The City

       According to the New York Times, "The tensions associated with segregation and concentrated poverty place many cities at risk of unrest. But the acute nature of segregation in Baltimore — and the tools that were developed to enforce it over such a long period of time — have left an indelible mark and given that city a singular place in the country’s racial history."
The State of Maryland allowed slavery. Baltimore, and Maryland's southern and eastern parts, depended on slavery for the state's profitable tobacco plantations.  The trade in slaves was also a source of wealth. Maryland didn't join the Confederacy of the southern states, but it might have. Feeling against the Union just before the American Civil War was so strong in Baltimore that Union troops occupied the city in May 1861. The whole state was then put under direct federal administration to keep it from leaving the Union.
At that time, Maryland had a large black slave population. It also had a large free black population, because of a liberal law on freeing slaves. A referendum on ending slavery entirely was put before the voters of Maryland in 1864 and by a narrow margin, the people voted to end slavery.
The free black population in Baltimore didn't leave the city. Despite the overall poverty of Baltimore's free blacks, compared with conditions for those living in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans, Baltimore was a "city of refuge." There were also institutions that provided a cushion against hardening white attitudes toward free blacks that followed the end of the Civil War.
But freedom didn't mean equality. In Baltimore, the city did all it could to segregate housing, helped by federal policies. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA, an agency meant to encourage home ownership) openly supported racist covenants that largely excluded African-Americans — even the middle class and the wealthy — from the homeownership boom of this period. And it typically denied mortgages to black residents wherever they lived.
Slums in Baltimore
(photo Timothy W. Maier,
Baltimore Post Examiner)
In Baltimore (as well as in other cities), this meant that black home buyers resorted to the "contract system." Property sellers set up ruinously priced installment plans and financial "booby traps" for the express purpose of repossessing the home. If the buyer missed even one payment, the seller got the house back and could sell it again. To meet the outrageous costs of these schemes, borrowers sometimes subdivided apartments and skimped on repairs. Properties decayed. Black families ended up trapped in deteriorating neighborhoods
Racism is, in the end, about profit. A small child who sees a person with different colored skin for the first time is curious, not repelled. Both whites and blacks (as well as other minorities), especially those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, are manipulated by political and economic interests into fearing and distrusting each other. This is made easier when educational failures leave people largely unable to question "received truths." As long as there is fear and distrust between the different communities, the divisions can be used to avoid public cooperation in demanding such things as responsible, unbiased policing.
After the riots
(photo by
Bishop M. Crowmartie)
The young man who was killed in Baltimore was fairly typical for his time and place. Freddie Gray was exposed to lead paint as a child and suspected of participation in the drug trade. These factors, added to the relative confinement of black unrest to black communities during the riots, are all features of a city and a country that still segregate people along racial lines. Segregation permits the financial enrichment of landlords, real estate speculators, corner store merchants and other vendors selling second-rate goods. And while blacks in Baltimore have a voice in the government, it can't offset the structural problems of a segregated community.
At the same time, it's worth pointing out that the riots lasted only one night. After that, a curfew and state of emergency were imposed. Many  in the community were and are opposed to violence. They supported the city's actions to calm things down. (For a time line of events from 27 April to 1 May, see
        While unrest has continued, there is recognition that violence only gives an excuse for a violent response. It continues the cycle and solves nothing in the end. In fact, the authorities in Baltimore have taken action to investigate and fix responsibility on those who were involved in Freddy Gray's death. Perhaps Baltimore, where segregation has been so pervasive and persistent, will end up being a model for how to finally root it out.

Note: the words in bold type can be found in the Quizlet titled "U.S. Racial Unrest"), if you wish. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Rails Across the Nation: Transcontinental Railroad Quizlet

The vocabulary underlined in "The Building of a Transcontinental Railroad" can be found in this quizlet:

There are other contexts where you can use many of these words. Play with them!

The Building of a Transcontinental Railroad

[The underlined words are defined in the quizlet titled "Rails Across the Nation."]
        May 10 marks the 146th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad in the U.S. On that date in 1869, a silver mallet pounded in the last spike for the track laid from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California, connecting the eastern U.S. to the west.
The rail line's tale reflects the conflicts and drama of its time.
The three possible railroad routes
After the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Mexico surrendered its claims to territory from today's Mexican border as far north as Colorado, including today's U.S. Southwest and much of California and Texas. Even before the war, there was talk of extending the railroad west; now it could go coast to coast.
Three possible routes were considered. The northern route, across the northern plains not far from Canada, was dismissed due to difficult terrain and fierce winters.
         The southern route had the advantage of avoiding the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but much of this route was in the South and tensions between the industrial northern states and the agricultural southern stats were high.
          The central route had to cross the mountains, but by following the Platte River and using a pass in Wyoming, it could avoid the worst of them.
  Political differences between northern and southern states prevented a decision until 1861, when most of the southern states left the federal Union. Once  the North controlled Congress, it approved the central route. The rail would begin at Council Bluffs, Iowa and eventually end at San Francisco, CA. Congress authorized two companies, the Central Pacific Railroad Company and the Union Pacific Railroad Company, to build and operate the service.
  Huge fortunes were made in the building of the railroad. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), there was little oversight of the work, despite significant federal investment in lands and tariff revenues for the construction.  For example, the major shareholder of the Union Pacific, Dr. Thomas Durant, made sure the early building crossed land that he owned around Omaha, NE. The sub-contractor for construction (also controlled by Durant) was paid by the mile, so several oxbows of unnecessary track were built during the railroad's first 2½ years that  never went further than 40 miles (64 km) from Omaha.
  Nevertheless, eventually (after 1865) the Union Pacific turned west. The Central Pacific, meanwhile, had hired hundreds of Chinese laborers to build its track, which had the lion's share of the difficult CA and NV terrain. The job required 15 tunnels to be carved through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, work that sometimes advanced at a daily average rate of only 1.8 feet (0.55 meter).
  The Union Pacific had legitimate construction delays once it got underway, but not caused by terrain--the route ran mostly across the immense grasslands of the American prairie, through what are now WY and NE. Building was fairly easy. But vast herds of American bison migrated across this route. The herds were not only an obstruction for the trains; the plains Indians depended on them for food, shelter and clothing.
          The railroad slaughtered them by the hundreds, almost to the point of extinction. Native Americans attacked the construction sites, trying to prevent what they considered a violation of treaty rights and also stop the destruction of their way of life. To no avail. The end of the bison meant the end of Native American plains culture; the tribes were broken. Within thirty years, Native Americans were largely confined to reservations.
  While the Central Pacific kept on building rail to connect Sacramento to San Francisco, the Union Pacific was bankrupt three years after the last spike was driven. Its capital was looted by graft and financial manipulation. It rose again from its ruins, with Jay Gould at the help--but that's another story.
Although there's no denying the destruction of cultures and the many ethical problems involved in building the transcontinental railroad, it was a triumph of construction for its day. It also opened a new era for the nation, an era of true national communication.
          Ironically, despite all the sweat and blood spent, the heyday of the rails lasted only until the automobile appeared on the scene, a brief 50 years, more or less. Highway Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles was born in 1926, and signaled the death knell for widespread long distance rail use in the United States. In 2013, even with increasing ridership, only 4.8 million passengers (of a total population of 316.5 million) rode the long distance routes.