After Armenian Genocide Recognition – Will Biden Administration Recognize US Injustices Too?

It was good to see, this past weekend, the Biden administration formally recognize the 1915-1917 genocide in Armenia by the Ottoman Turks, a gross social injustice that has long been hidden from view in polite conversation. Biden has long promised action on this, where past administrations have, at best, quietly tip-toed around the issue.

Positive Signs For Speaking Truths For Healing And Reconciliation At Home

Furthermore, the Biden White House press statement also said “let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all people of the world.” A Biden administration official gave more details to the Guardian:

“This is something that’s been a deeply held conviction of President Biden for a very long time going back to when he was in the Senate and it was a position that he made very clear during the campaign…  I would say we’re also at a moment, including here in the United States, where people are grappling with their histories, and the impact of those histories and so I think, even just historically, it is the right moment to do this.” (Biden administration official speaking to The Guardian, emphasis added)

Meanwhile, first lady Jill Biden spent Earth day (Thursday) and Friday visiting with some of the America’s First Peoples, at the Navaho Nation. ABC News reported that:

“[Jill] Biden sprinkled in phrases in Navajo that point to the holistic nature of the culture that interconnects all things, living in balance, beauty and harmony. She said she was proud to address the Navajo Nation on a day that highlights the protection of Mother Earth, a reference to Biden’s climate change agenda.

“It’s on all of us together to find the path back to hoz’ho — harmony and beauty, the world as it should be,” she said Thursday beneath a red sandstone arch with a cut-out that gives the tribal capital of Window Rock its name. “Despite the challenges that you faced, the Navajo Nation lives that truth again and again.”” (ABC News)

Just a few days earlier, on April 21st, Vice-President Kamala Harris made clear statements on systemic racism in the US in the aftermath Verdict of the Chauvin/George Floyd trial, saying:

“This work is long overdue.  America has a long history of systemic racism.  Black Americans — and Black men, in particular — have been treated, throughout the course of our history, as less than human.” (Kamala Harris, Biden-Harris White House statement)

Are these simultaneous statements highlighting the US’s historical issues around social and environmental justice merely a coincidence? If this is indeed a coordinated effort of the administration to raise awareness of deep-seated injustices, is it just posturing, or do these moves point to further action in the spirit of pursuing the stated aim of “healing and reconciliation for all people of the world”?

Gavin Newsom. Press Image

Newsom’s Recognition of the California Genocide – Something To Build Upon?

I’ve written before about my experience in attending an anthropology colleague’s undergraduate class at USC in 2015, which reviewed a brief history of the First Peoples of the California region, from prior to the US occupation in 1846, through official incorporation as one of the States of the USA in 1850, and subsequently. During this dark history, tens of thousands of First Nations peoples who had lived in the California region for generations were either murdered or enslaved.

The injustices included the enslavement of thousands of children, and the rape and murder of women. In an early example of how such injustices were submerged from popular consciousness of the nation’s history, many of these atrocities were committed under the auspices of the California State Legislature’s 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which is a name geometrically opposed to the truth.

At the end of the anthropology class, the professor asked the 60+ students to raise a hand if anyone was aware of this history of their own home state, prior to that day’s class. No hands were raised.

My colleague later told me that the historical reality of this relatively new state is simply not taught to Californians, as is also the case in much of the rest of the US. The US’s might-is-right delusion of Manifest Destiny, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, (which led to the Trail of Tears, amongst other death marches), and horrific sites of wanton slaughter, such as the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, are neither widely discussed or acknowledged. Such historical events are certainly submerged from popular consciousness in the nation today. The following 1862 image depicting ‘Manifest Destiny’ still resides in the US Capitol Building until now, almost as if it’s something to be proud of:

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, 1862. Image Courtesy: US Public Domain Image, US Capitol Building

It seems that the Biden-Harris administration is making some tentative moves to elevate some of these darker events in the nation’s history back into the public consciousness.

In California itself, some initial steps having already been taken to recognize the reality of genocide, which the Biden-Harris administration could build upon, having demonstrated the courage to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. In June 2019, California Governor Newsom issued an apology to Native Americans, saying:

“California must reckon with our dark history. … California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history. … It was genocide … that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”

The state is now in the process of setting up a “truth and healing council” (along the lines of South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission) to recognize and document past atrocities and injustices (many of which continued at a US federal level until the 1960s), rather than keeping these atrocities erased.

When Biden says “let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all people of the world,” it would seem like a good opportunity to bring this sentiment back home to provide some social and environmental healing in the US.

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