Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne, 1624)
In his 1858 run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln lost the seat, but was elected president two years later, and his “house divided” speech, considered by many as too radical at the time, gained immortality. Perhaps because it speaks an incontrovertible truth.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
America, the fabled melting pot, the grand experiment, is flailing on multiple fronts and failing (or to be accurate, continuing to fail) millions of Americans—Blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans, who together make up a third of the U.S. population. That’s 100,000,000 people. Riffing on Lincoln’s metaphor, if a third of your home was suffering neglect, left to rot and, worse, taking continual direct hits, how would you rate the stability of the whole? Would you not grieve for the damage? Do your best to repair it? Prevent a recurrence?
A quarter of a millennium after America declared itself a nation, we are still struggling with what a nation is. Is it a loose collection of tribes—racial, economic, ethnic, religious—with different needs, competing interests, and no intersection? Is it a miscellany of states, blue, red, and trending purple, urban vs. rural? And if we fail to be a nation, a house standing resolutely, every nail and plank and shingle as vital to the whole, as equally worthy of care and respect, then what fate awaits us?
Who Divisiveness Serves
When the authors of the Declaration of Independence penned that famous line, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, they weren’t advocating for the equal rights of men without property, or women, or African Americans be they slave, indentured servant, or (in rare instances) free, and certainly not the Native tribes whose land had been stolen by white Europeans, continued to be stolen by white Americans, and today is abused/stolen by primarily white-managed companies, like Energy Partners and its parent-company Sunoco in the case of Standing Rock Sioux and the Dakota Pipeline.
Turns out that a divided house is highly profitable for those with big $$$, the propertied class, and that picture hasn’t changed since Thomas Jefferson. The ten richest people in America today are still men, and still white. As the French say, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And since the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, with its absurd notion that corporations are people, these rich white men, and hundreds more like them, have been able to openly buy government officials who will vote their interests. TheRUMP. Moscow Mitch. A majority in the Senate. Governors. And lots of State Secretaries (who oversee voter rolls).
These same white men own or have a controlling interest in companies that largely employ Black and Latinx people in low-paying jobs. Think warehouse workers for Amazon or meatpackers for Tyson Foods. A 2015 analysis showed that only 3.3% of Amazon’s Black workers held “professional” positions, and only one of their 110 top execs and senior officials was Black, while more than 85% of the company’s Black workers had unskilled jobs. Meat-packing plants, like the ones owned by Tyson Foods, largely employ Latinx and Black workers in grueling, low-paying (the unions that once paid white packers a living wage are long gone), and increasingly dangerous jobs. More than 4,500 Tyson workers have contracted COVID-19.
A History of Oppression: Nothing New
The history of exploiting and controlling people of color for profit by the powerful and white in America is as old as the nation. And then some. Early European settlers brought not only guns and new diseases, but a concept of ownership that was truly foreign to Native tribes: the idea of private property, that an individual could have legal and exclusive rights to a particular piece of land. The Europeans’ (often violent) usurpation and conversion of Native lands to private holdings drove Native peoples further and further from everything they knew, including the burial grounds of their ancestors, until they were forced onto reservations under the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851. The reservation system not only left Native Americans with the least desirable land, it banned them from leaving the reservation without government permission.
The Dawes Act of 1887 added further insult to injury by giving government the right to divide reservations into small allotments of land for individuals within a Native tribe. This, it was touted, would help the Native peoples to “assimilate” to the American (White, Christian) culture more quickly. In reality, the Act cut the land Native Americans owned by more than 50 percent to make way for the railroads.
At the same moment Native tribes were being shunted onto reservations, African-Americans were deep in their own troubles with the powers-that-be. In what is widely considered to be the worst U.S. Supreme Court decision for Black Americans (and there have been some real doozies), Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) ruled that the Constitution had never intended to grant American citizenship to Black people, enslaved or “free.”
Eleven years and one very bloody Civil War later, the Fourteenth Amendment overturned Dred Scott, granting citizenship to everyone born in the U.S, which is good, of course, but the gap between a legal right on paper and the living/recognition of that right in reality—well, it can be a mighty gap.
Even before Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, schemes were being hatched about what to do with the newly-freed slaves. General Sherman seized 400,000 acres—largely rice farming area—along the coastline of Georgia and South Carolina under Field Order 15, and settled 40,000 of the roughly 4 million freed slaves there. Immediately, white Confederate farmers cried foul, claiming the land belonged to them. Andrew Johnson, now president after Lincoln’s assassination, overturned Field Order 15. Black farmers must return the land to its “rightful” white owners.
So, again, where to put these people who are “other”? Recall the fate of Native Americans—do we detect a pattern here? Congress responded with the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, which opened 46 million acres of federal land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi for purchase by both newly-freed Blacks and poor white farmers. But many aspiring Black farmers were frustrated in their quest to own a piece, even a bite, of the pie. Not only did extreme poverty put purchase out of reach, but the land often proved unsuitable, difficult to locate, and if they overcame these troubles, they still faced white hostility and violence.
In fact, violence against Black Americans was rising everywhere. The Ku Klux Klan emerged within months of the Civil War’s end. And Jim Crow laws flourished with one aim: to enforce pre-war segregation and a social contract that gave all the rights to whites, including the right to lynch a Black person without consequences. More on this in a bit.
Fear and Hatred: The Tools of Divide and Conquer
Divide and Conquer: It’s as old as the history of sovereigns seeking to control a population for their own benefit and continued dominance. AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance) calls divide-and-conquer one of the “most infuriatingly effective tricks in the book” and cites among its key tactics: Creating a narrative that blames each group for the other group’s problems. This works to foster mistrust amongst groups and to obfuscate the systematic inequalities of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy.
“These aren’t people. These are animals,” TheRUMP said of immigrants seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border. “Working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration,” he claimed. “Reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.”
Defending his Muslim Ban, TheRUMP declared, “You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.” This despite the fact that most Muslim immigrants are fleeing ISIS terror and the bloody Syrian civil war.
Jokes about the Trail of Tears. References to Haiti and African nations in general as “shithole countries.”
They’re stealing your jobs, threatening your safety, plotting to overthrow your rightful (white) dominance. It’s the mantra used by the wealthy, white, and powerful to preserve a status quo that benefits them immensely.
So, why do so many white Americans—especially those from the poor and working classes—fall for these lies over and over, even when they’re exposed as myth? Author Ron Breazeale, Ph.D. points out that “promoting and often clinging to [these positions] is based on emotion,” not reason or fact. “Fear and anger distract people and distort their thinking.”
And one of the greatest fears is the fear of becoming “the absolute bottom.” Before the end of the Civil War, poor southern whites could comfort themselves with the fact that though they weren’t wealthy plantation owners, they were at least “better” than the Black slaves picking cotton. After emancipation, this assumption was less certain. The newly-formed KKK spoke to these people’s anxiety.
Having worked in communities where poor, barely-educated whites formed the bulk of the population, I’ve observed this anxiety firsthand. Rather than being sympathetic to or forming an alliance with their Latinx and Black neighbors—“class-mates” economically speaking—they freely spouted racist remarks, most often in comparative terms: At least, they [whites] had standards. They knew the meaning of work. No one was giving them a hand out. Desperate for someone to climb on the backs of, for someone to look down on. I’m not the bottom. I’m not the bottom.
Easy to play on those fears. Easy to divide whites and people of color, thus assuring a cheap, exploitable, often non-unionized working class, and a political landscape not subject to popular socialist uprisings.
Racial Justice is Economic Justice
The tangle that is economic injustice is thick and difficult to unravel, but education is a great place to start. As a former first grade teacher, I can tell you that schools are both the place where inequalities are perpetuated and the opportunity for those inequalities to be overcome. Many, if not most, students in affluent communities enter school with all the perks that foster success: good nutrition; a surfeit of cultural experiences (largely white culture, though this is s-l-o-w-l-y changing)—trips to museums, concerts; lessons in music, dance, theater; parents who regularly read aloud to them. Perks that students from impoverished communities—where many parents juggle multiple minimum-wage jobs just to survive, and have little time for reading stories or cultural outings, and no money for lessons—can’t match.
If we want to break the chain of poverty, we must mandate that all public schools, regardless of location or student population, are housed in clean, spacious, well-equipped buildings, and adequately staffed by credentialed teachers, ESL and reading specialists, counselors, nurses, and administrators committed to racial justice. No cops. No use of court referrals to handle discipline of kids in school. No school-to-prison pipeline.
Financing such a mandate must be a combination of federal and state dollars—with the proportion of federal monies greater in states with less revenue, and lower in states that are tax-affluent—but the control must remain predominantly local. Impoverished schools handed over to state control have not improved outcomes for kids. They have merely silenced the voices of community educators and parents. And those voices are vital in communities of color.
Many people forget that school board elections were some of the first democratic processes in which African Americans were able to engage themselves as candidates for positions of public governance. In representing their communities on local school boards, African Americans were immersed within the political processes of city and county governance, which provided training for elevated levels of government service. (The Southern Education Foundation)
Truly great and equitable public schools for all children is the first and most important step toward economic justice. Access to free college or trade schools is the second. Imagine a world where we could all develop our personal talents and pursue our interests, our passions. And now some (affluent, educated, usually white) crank is sure to say, “Whoa, we need someone to work the Slurpee machine at the 7-11. Someone to flip burgers at Mickey D’s. We can’t all be leaders. Some of us have to be followers.” When I hear this, I think, “So why don’t you volunteer?”
We live in a world where automation is advancing daily. How many of the low-wage, no-benefits, dead-end jobs could be done by robots? I mean, we have robots assisting in surgery, so surely they could “learn” the Slurpee machine. And for those jobs that can’t be mechanized, we must pay a true living wage to every worker, say $25 an hour. Not in five years time, but now, with an annual COLA. For the people who harvest our fruits and veggies. For the janitors and the folks who stock the shelves, for childcare workers and Amazon warehouse employees. Economic justice is really equality of opportunity. And to guarantee that equality, you need legal justice.
Racial Justice is Legal Justice
It’s interesting—and chillingly telling—that when Nazi lawyers were casting about for a framework to construct what became the Nuremburg Laws, they studied America’s Jim Crow laws which segregated Blacks from whites, and brutally (even murderously) discriminated against the former.
It is equally horrifying that 75 years after American soldiers, Black and white, risked and sacrificed their lives to defeat Hitler’s Germany, the most deadly effect of Jim Crow—lynching—is still not a federal crime. Some 200 attempts at legislation in the past 100+ years have failed, even though more than 4,000 Black Americans were lynched from 1877-1950, in the heyday of Jim Crow. Even though these vigilante murders occurred up to the close of the 20th century. Even though they are still occurring, for what is Ahmaud Arbery’s murder if not a lynching?
The good news is the House did pass a bill in January making lynching a federal hate crime, citing in its findings: (15) Having concluded that a reckoning with our own history is the only way the country can effectively champion human rights abroad, 90 Members of the United States Senate agreed to Senate Resolution 39, 109th Congress, on June 13, 2005, to apologize to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation.
Well, the bad news is that, of this writing, the Senate is still failing to enact such legislation. Rand Paul blocked the House bill from coming to a vote, objecting to the bill’s “broad scope.” I mean, you don’t want to give someone serious prison time for “merely” disfiguring a face or whacking off a limb. Gracious, no! Some Democrats suggested what Paul objected to was the bill’s new name: The Emmett Till Antilynching Act.
For too long, it’s been too easy to dismiss this kind of systemic brutal violence as a “southern” problem. But George Floyd was a Minnesotan, murdered over the issue of twenty bucks. Eric Garner was a New Yorker, strangled for selling cigarettes. And Ryan Twyman, who was shot 34 times in his car in June 2019 by the LAPD for possible possession of illegal weapons (none were found in his car), lived in sunny California. If we are to save this house that’s exploding all around us, we need serious police reforms, not the kind of faux band-aid “suggestions” made by TheRUMP, who, you know, kind of thinks chokeholds are sort of a bad idea, except when they’re necessary. We need:
- A ban on police use of chokeholds.
- And end to the provision/use of military grade weapons by the police.
- A prohibition on racial profiling, and an end to stop and frisk.
- A ban on no-knock warrants.
- Creation of a national police misconduct registry, and an end to qualified immunity.
- A ban on the use of facial recognition systems by both police and ICE, systems which “misidentify Blacks at rates five to 10 times higher than they do whites.”
And we must stop sending the police to intervene in every situation. Armed cops do not need to be called in when no actual crime is being committed or openly threatened. As Scott Roberts at Color of Change points out: “Rayshard Brooks should [and would] still be alive today. If a tow truck had been called instead of the police, if family members were called to pick him up, or even if he was simply allowed to walk home. There are a number of non-police alternatives that could have been used in the minutes leading up to Rayshard’s murder.”
Stopping the epidemic of police violence against people of color and putting the dollars spent on police into services that improve the lives of Black and Brown communities is the headline story of the moment, but legal justice must also address the systemic racism in banking and investment.
Robert Reich notes that while the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, BlackRock, and Goldman Sachs all publicly bemoaned racial bias in the wake of Floyd’s murder, JPMorgan has made it difficult for Black people to get mortgage loans, routinely charging them higher interest rates than white borrowers and refusing them mortgages white applicants would have received. BlackRock is a major investor in the private prisons that disproportionately incarcerate men of color. In the halls of Congress, these CEOs oppose laws against red-lining or payday lending (both of which disproportionately burden Black and Brown people), while receiving giant tax cuts and lobbying against “a wealth tax that could bring world-class schools, first-class healthcare and affordable housing to communities of color.”
We haven’t even touched on voting rights or how gentrification is destroying Black and Brown communities in every city. You’d need an encyclopedia, or a set of them, to catalog all the ways the law works to restrict, harass, incarcerate, and kill Black and Brown Americans.
Racial Justice is Environmental Justice
The destruction of communities of color goes far beyond gentrification. It goes to the very lives of the inhabitants. One of the reasons COVID-19 is proving so deadly for Black and Native peoples is that their communities are too often the dumping grounds for tainted water, smoggy air, and industrial waste. Asthma mortality rates in the Black community are three times that of whites, nationwide, and Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000, compared to 20.7 for whites. The link? Both diseases are higher in areas that suffer heavy air pollution, and people with Asthma are particularly vulnerable to dying from COVID.
Landfills, refineries, and industrial plants that poison the environment are overwhelmingly located in Black neighborhoods. Major highways in every metropolis—The Bronx, Los Angeles, Chicago, DC—run through Black and Latinx communities, filling the lungs of those who live there with toxic fumes. And that’s no accident. Race-based zoning has corralled people of color into what are known as “sacrifice zones”, hot spots of pollution.
And though a bulk of the worst pollution sources are dumped in neighborhoods with low education and income levels, studies have shown that environmental injustice is not just a “poor person’s thing.” Middle-class Black neighborhoods, with incomes in the $50,000-$60,000 range, tend to be more polluted than white neighborhoods where the incomes are under $10,000. Nor is this poison-dump only an urban issue. Down-river pollution, fracking, and cheap land for unloading toxic waste all affect rural communities of color and Indigenous peoples. As I write, plans are in the works to build a fracked gas export facility on sacred land of the Texas Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe. And the struggle by Native Americans to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is legend.
Racial justice demands a true environmental rethink/revolution. A genuine green plan that leaves no one gasping for breath.
Racial Justice is Social Justice
The United Nations defines Social Justice as “the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.” The Oxford Reference calls it “the objective of creating a fair and equal society in which each individual matters, their rights are recognized and protected, and decisions are made in ways that are fair and honest.” The justice we’ve been discussing here. The justice we still lack.
On our 244th anniversary, America has yet to answer that most important question: Are we a nation? Or are we just a loose, wrangling collection of various peoples: Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and white, with many whites struggling to maintain the unfair (major) edge they’ve always enjoyed, determined to remain dominant if they’re monied, equally determined to avoid being cast to “the bottom” if they’re not?
With internal divisions as deep as any we’ve seen since the Civil War, I believe the first thing we must do is own up to the havoc and ruin this deeply divided house has wrought. And that means continuing and amplifying the kinds of conversations we’ve been having in recent weeks in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. We’ve begun these conversations before, most notably during the Civil Rights era when people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis revealed to a nation just how badly we had failed the democratic ideal. We need to keep talking this time. And more than that, those of us who enjoy privilege need to walk the walk. Not for a single piece of legislation. Not for a season. But until what happened to George Floyd is impossible for a generation of Black children to imagine.
The idea of supremacy—of racial, class, ethnic, religious “pecking orders”—it’s such a waste of talent, brilliance, of human potential. This—I don’t know what to call it—drive?—to suppress others, to climb on the backs of our fellow beings, to press the life from them. It leads to nothing but suffering—police violence, wars, a poisoned planet where children die daily, without having lived. Our hierarchies are killing us. Literally.
But what if there were no hierarchies? What if we became a house indivisible? Not a “melting pot” of assimilation to whiteness, but an America of true equality,its strength and endurance founded in the beauty and complexity of what we each bring to the mix. Can we ever hope to be that nation, united in justice and opportunity for all?
I only know we’ll never get there by climbing on someone else’s back to get advantage. We’ll only get there by linking arms. In his brilliant and enduring Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963), Martin Luther King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”