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Feb. 20, 2020 | Thursday
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Opinion: Society can't move forward by going backward
We must never forget where we all originally came from, why we came, and that at some point, most of us were considered “the other,” writes Hermine Steinberg. North America was largely built by outcasts, slaves, refugees, the oppressed and the marginalized: those desperate for a better life. (Richard Harley/File photo)


American capitalism was built upon and prospered from a system of exclusion, dispossession, exploitation, and slavery. As was the case in Canada.

Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda and mission to “Make America Great Again” imply that America needs to go back to what it was. It’s an ideological retrenchment disguised by emotional propaganda that prevents political and economic progress.

The redistribution of power and restructuring of our economic system to make it more equitable and sustainable is feared by many. But fixing the foundation is the only way to build a strong house that will meet the needs of its citizens today and in the future.

More importantly, it is critical that we recognize the system we have now is increasingly enriching a small number of corporations and individuals while impoverishing and exploiting the majority of us. Its callous disregard for our environment, quality of life and right to self-determination can be seen all around us. Its promotion of dependence and anxiety, frenetic consumerism, conflict and division is diminishing us. But it is incredibly important to understand that this is nothing new, merely an extrapolation of what was.

The founding of European colonies in North America is often portrayed as a noble pursuit by romantic idealists and brave explorers. Not until recently have we openly talked about the fact that it was mostly established on the basis of genocide, slavery, cultural displacement and false promises. We rarely acknowledge the men, women and children whose blood, sweat and tears built our nations.

It could be argued that Europeans couldn’t have developed the New World without slave labour and that the United States may not have risen as a world economic power without a thriving slave economy.

By 1680, there were about 7,000 African slaves in the American colonies and by 1790 their numbers grew to about 700,000. Wealth was created by their hands and on their backs.

By 1840, the South grew 60 per cent of the world’s cotton and provided 70 per cent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. The North established a variety of related industries, including textile factories, insurance companies, shipping firms, cotton brokers and banks.

Wall Street was born from the enormous growth of the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, New York’s first slave market was established in 1711 on what is now Wall Street. Moses Taylor, founder of Citibank, became the richest man in America through the illegal trade of slaves from New York to Cuba.

Meanwhile, at least 50 per cent of the white Europeans who came to America between the 1630s and 1776 arrived as indentured servants. Many of them were kidnapped in European cities and forced into servitude in America. Additionally, thousands of English convicts were shipped across the Atlantic and sold as indentured servants. Orphans were sent to Canada, the U.S. and Australia as cheap labour.

Between 1870 and 1900, about 12 million people arrived in the United States from northern and western Europe, typically impoverished, uneducated, and desperate. They were the downtrodden and joined the newly freed slaves to make up the basis of the American workforce.

One of those people was a 16-year old boy who arrived from Germany in 1885. He was Donald Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump. He made his fortune by operating restaurants and brothels in Seattle, the mining town of Monte Cristo and in the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1902, he returned to his native German town of Kallstadt and married, then returned to New York for a short while. When he returned to Germany in 1904 authorities stated that his previous emigration to avoid military service was illegal and resulted in the loss of his German citizenship. Trump was issued a royal decree to leave the country. He petitioned the decision for several months but was unsuccessful and forced out, so he returned to New York in 1905.

We must never forget where we all originally came from, why we came, and that at some point, most of us were considered “the other.” North America was largely built by outcasts, slaves, refugees, the oppressed and the marginalized: those desperate for a better life. And it was that desperation that led to innovation, co-operation and progress.

But we still have a long way to go and can’t get there by going backward or refusing to dismantle the barriers that prevent us from building an inclusive, sustainable and democratic society that allows us to develop our most important resource – our people.

Hermine Steinberg lives in NOTL.