The United States has a lot to be proud of:
- it is the world’s most powerful country on Earth
- it is a global leader in culture and innovation as well as international affairs, and
- it has a well-earned reputation for freedom and democracy.
Unfortunately, like any country, it has its flaws, as well, and those flaws are important to remember and examine — even if many Americans would probably rather not think about them. Here they are.
The above edited excerpts, and what follows, are from a post* by Max Fisher (vox.com) originally entitled 16 maps that Americans don’t like to talk about.
Image credit: Sam B. Hillard/Sunisup
The above map begins by showing Native Americans’ land in 1794, demarcated by tribe and marked in green. In 1795, the U.S. and Spain signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo, carving up much of the continent between them. What followed was a century of catastrophes for Native Americans as their land was taken piece by piece. By the time the U.S. passed the Dawes Act in 1887, effectively abolishing tribal self-governance and forcing assimilation, there was very little left.
European settlers who arrived in North America found it filled with diverse, long-established societies. They may well have become sovereign nation-states had the settlers, and later the United States, not sought to purge them from their lands, deny them self-rule, and, once they had been reduced to a tiny minority, forcibly assimilate them and their land. These acts are the foundation upon which the United States as we know it today was built.
Image credit: Nikater
The largest act of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the United States government began in 1830, when Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, which gave him the power to negotiate the removal of Native American tribes in the South to land west of the Mississippi. Of course, those negotiations were corrupt and rife with coercion. Take, for example, the removal of the Cherokee, which was conducted via a treaty never approved by leaders of the Cherokee nation and resulted in, according to a missionary doctor who accompanied the Cherokee during removal, about 4,000 deaths, or one-fifth of the Cherokee population. Later scholarship suggested the numbers could be even higher than that. –Dylan Matthews
Image credit: Rural Assistance Center
The above map of indigenous population density today shows the effects of not just the initial disease-driven depopulation of North America in the wake of European settlement in the 15th to 18th centuries, but also the long effort of the U.S. government in the 19th century to remove Native Americans from their homes and place them in reservations of its choosing. The Cherokees of Georgia are gone, having been forced to relocate to eastern Oklahoma. A handful of counties in the upper Plains states, Arizona, and New Mexico have large or majority native populations. Alaska natives are still a majority in a number of counties. But in most of the country — especially in the South, Midwest, and Northeast — Native Americans make up a vanishingly small percentage of the population. –Dylan Matthews
Image credit: Golbez
The fight over slavery in the United States began even before independence, as constitutional framers clashed over whether or how to reconcile the world’s most barbaric practice with the idealistic new nation. The abolitionists lost, and while states such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire ended slavery almost immediately after independence, slaveholders continued expanding the institution of slavery for decades. Slavery developed into a sort of cultural institution upon which Southern whites depended for their economic livelihood and their identity; they fought bitterly to press slavery onto news states. As America expanded westward, both pro- and anti-slavery factions tried to claim the territories as their own. The cultural and political divide deeply polarized the nation, leading inexorably to war.
Image credit: The Atlantic/Frankie Dintino
The New Deal brought with it a number of government institutions meant to expand access to housing, including the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). This is an HOLC map of Chicago from 1939, with neighborhoods color-coded by stability, as judged by the government.
“On the maps, green areas, rated ‘A,’ indicated ‘in demand’ neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro,'” Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in the Atlantic. “These neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated ‘D’ and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red.”
This practice became known as “redlining,” and would be the norm in the housing sector as a whole for decades to come, effectively denying black people the ability to own homes. –Dylan Matthews
Image credit: Urban Institute
The demographics of America’s public schools are changing. This year, for the first time in American history, nonwhite students outnumber white ones. But racial segregation in schooling — driven in large part by segregation in housing, and thus in school district placement — persists. The vast majority of white students attend majority-white schools. Black and Latino students are also likely to be in schools that are majority nonwhite, except in heavily white rural areas. –Dylan Matthews
Image credit: Harvard Equality of Opportunity Project
For some people, the American dream — the promise that working hard will earn you a better life — is alive and well; immigrants to the U.S. often find their incomes multiplied many times over upon arrival. But for people born in the U.S., prospects are more dire. This map shows estimates from the Harvard Equality of Opportunity Project, spearheaded by economist Raj Chetty, which sought to estimate economic mobility at the county level. It found that in only a smattering of counties, mostly in the Plains, did children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution have a decent shot of making it into the top 20 percent. In the South and Midwest, the odds are perilously close to zero. –Dylan Matthews
Image credit: Max Fisher
In a 2013 UNICEF study, the United States ranked 34th out of the developed world’s 35 countries by child poverty rates, above only Romania. The poor U.S. showing in this data may reflect growing income inequality. According to one metric of inequality, the U.S. economy is one of the most unequal in the developed world. This would explain why the United States, on child poverty, is ranked between Bulgaria and Romania, though Americans are on average six times richer than Bulgarians and Romanians.
Image credit: Max Fisher
According to a metric called the Palma Ratio, which measures economic inequality, the U.S. ranks 44th out of 86 countries, below virtually the entire developed world and one spot below Nigeria.
Image credit: Anand Katakam
If there was a single moment when the U.S. became a global power, it was the war with Spain. The Spanish Empire had been crumbling for a century, and there was a ferocious debate within the U.S. over whether America should replace it as a European-style imperial power, or if as a democracy the US should instead liberate peoples from imperialism. The debate centered on Cuba: pro-imperialists wanted to purchase or annex it from Spain (pre-1861, the plan was to turn it into a new slave state); anti-imperialists wanted to support Cuban independence.
In 1898, Cuban activists launched a war of independence from Spain, and the U.S. intervened on their side. When the war ended in Spanish defeat, U.S. anti-imperialists blocked the U.S. from annexing Cuba, but pro-imperialists succeeded in passing the notorious Platt Amendment, which placed Cuba under a quasi-imperialist form of indirect control; the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay is a relic of this arrangement. The war also ended with the US taking control of three other Spanish possessions: Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, a massive and populous island nation in the Pacific where the U.S. fought a war against independence activists. The U.S. had become a European-style imperial power. While this experiment in colonialism was short-lived and controversial at home, it began America’s role as a major global power.
Image credit: Emok
Most Americans assume that Hawaii became a state democratically, like the rest of the U.S.. They are wrong; it was absorbed in an act of overt imperialism and against the will of its native population. In 1893, when Hawaii was a sovereign nation, American businessmen seized power in a coup and asked the U.S. to annex it. President Cleveland refused to conquer another nation, but when William McKinley took office he agreed, absorbing Hawaii. This was the first of several imperial acquisitions the U.S. made in the Pacific. Japan soon entered the race for the Pacific as well, and seized many European-held islands, culminating in this 1939 map, two years before the U.S. joined World War II.
Image credit: General Henry H. Arnold
The above map, from a 1945 report by US Air Force General Henry H. Arnold, put the American firebombing campaign against Japan into chilling terms. Next to each city is the percentage of the city’s buildings that were burned down, as well as the name of a U.S. city of equivalent size. Here are a few examples:
• Tokyo 39.9% (New York)
• Nagoya 40% (Los Angeles)
• Kobe 55.7% (Baltimore)
• Yokohama 57.6% (Cleveland)
All Americans learn about the two atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan at the end of the war, and we’re starting to become more aware of the firebombing campaigns that wiped out much of Germany, including civilians. But we are nowhere near confronting the U.S. firebombing of Japan, which killed several times as many people as the atomic bombs and physically devastated Japan for a generation. By the time the war ended, 30 percent of the residents of Japan’s largest 60 cities were homeless.
Image credit: Max Rust and Phil Geib/Chicago Tribune
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. sprayed millions of gallons of defoliants and herbicides over South Vietnam in a misguided and horrifically callous effort to deny the enemy cover, shelter, and food. (The U.S. also sprayed an unknown amount of these chemicals over Laos and Cambodia.) The most famous was Agent Orange.
Rather than assuring victory, these poisonous chemicals killed many thousands of Vietnamese civilians, spiked rates of cancer and other diseases, caused a generation of Vietnamese babies to be born with alarmingly high rates of birth defects, and devastated the environment and economy of the nation that the U.S. was ostensibly trying to save. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimated in 2002 that up to 1 million civilians still suffer from health problems due to exposure. Many Americans still suffer as well, with thousands of veterans similarly affected by the chemicals.
Image credit: Minnesotan Confederacy
American and Soviet fears of a global struggle became a self-fulfilling prophecy: both launched coups, supported rebellions, backed dictators, and participated in proxy wars in nearly every corner of the world. This map shows the world as it had been left utterly divided by the conflict, marking the allies and insurgencies back by the US and Soviet as of 1980.
Not every ally was a puppet, of course — many were democracies, and others were dictatorships that had become that way independently of the Cold War or the United States. Still, the U.S. backed or imposed a number of abusive regimes that could only be described as right-wing puppets — for example, Augusto Pinochet in Chile or Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran. It also supported insurgencies in much of the “Third World” — meaning anything outside of the West or the Soviet sphere.
Image credit: Joel Wing
No one has suffered more from the Iraq War — which in some ways is still ongoing — than Iraqi civilians. The fluctuations in this chart show the first three distinct stages of the war. The first, from 2003 to 2005, was the war between the U.S.-led invasion force and Iraqi forces, including government forces as well as Islamist and nationalist insurgents. Civilians in this period were bystanders. In early 2006, however, Iraq’s conflict became what is often described as a civil war, fought among three factions: Sunni insurgents, including Islamist extremists and former Saddam loyalists; Shia militias, some of them rogue members of state security forces; and the U.S.-led occupation force. In this period, which lasted two awful years, civilians were often the target of the violence, with bombings and death squads seeking to ethnically cleanse Baghdad in particular. While conditions improved significantly after 2008, not long after the U.S. forces departed in 2011, the country collapsed again into violence.
Image credit: UNHCR
In much of 2012 and 2013, the United States had a difficult and painful internal debate — first among policymakers and then after Bashar al-Assad’s August 2013 chemical weapons attack — over what to do about the war devastating Syria. Ultimately, the country decided that virtually any action would likely make things worse and bring unacceptable risk for the U.S..
But, reasoning that surely the world’s richest and most powerful country could do something, the White House announced the U.S. would take in some of the millions of refugees — it is the world’s worst refugee crisis — who have been displaced by the war into neighboring countries, where they struggle to get by and risk exacerbating instability in those countries as well. But the U.S. has not followed through, admitting only a few hundred refugees out of more than 3 million. Opposition from Republican lawmakers and conservative media, as well as simple bureaucratic disorganization, has slowed the program to a crawl. It is an unsurprising but sad demonstration of the fact that while America might be great at starting or sponsoring catastrophic wars, it is not always so committed when it comes to deploying that mighty wealth and power toward helping people in need.