The news headlines are constantly changing -- White Supremacists Rally in Charlottesville, homeowners of color lack financial resources to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, Trump administration ends Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) -- but the larger story we are living traces the same threads of racism and exploitation.
My personal journey brought me to cooperatives because I dreamed of a more democratic and equitable world, where communities can hold power and wealth through their ownership of the structures that they live in: food, educational, political systems and more. However, this journey has also taught me that I and other white people must own up to the ways we have benefited from the historic and current ownership structures that are neither democratic nor equitable, and only further the concentration of power and wealth among the white upper class. As a white person with many generations of family living in the south, I know that I am a direct descendant of people who owned enslaved Black people. Now is not the time for white people--especially those of us within the solidarity economy movement--to distance ourselves from the roots or the current manifestations of racial and economic disparities that we live within, but to face them boldly. Yes, in this moment white people may want to distance ourselves from the reality of white supremacy because we feel guilt and shame, or perhaps it is painful to break rank and we fear being ostracized, or we even may resist change and be in denial of the reality. We might look for quick fixes, or strive to have the 'best' analysis without taking any action, or claim that the problem exists somewhere else. But if you too dream of a more democratic and equitable world, we must own up to the reality and our relation to it.
Let's take a moment to do our homework and break down the wealth gap facts and how government policies reinforce inequity: the median white household has $111,146 in wealth holdings (2011) compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latinx household.(1) Over half of the $400 billion provided annually in federal asset-building subsidies for homeownership, retirement savings, economic investment and access to college go to the wealthiest five percent of taxpaying households. Black and Latinx households disproportionately receive little or no benefit.(2) When Donald Trump said, “This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and Thomas Jefferson the week after,” he was pointing out the very issue at hand: white supremacy does not just live in a few individuals, but is woven into our country's founding and ubiquitous in the way it functions today. Jack Christian, a white anti-racist and descendant of Stonewall Jackson, is calling to tear down the monument to his great-great-grandfather in Richmond, Virginia and says we must recognize that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were in fact white nationalists and slave owners. They were the founders of a country designed by and for the benefit of wealthy white people. And today this hasn't changed; DACA served 98% non-whites and has been repealed as the president of the country claims that young undocumented workers are criminals and a drag on the economy. This is a tactic to maintain a majority white country based on racist rhetoric that is, of course, false: Dreamers pay taxes and are not eligible for federal welfare, and criminals were never eligible for protection under DACA anyway!(3)
Racial and economic disparities are rooted in historic injustices but carried forward by policies and practices that institute inequitable patterns. In Charlottesville, the city council was attempting to help repair the damage done by these patterns; it was not just the selling(4) of the Robert E. Lee statue, but also a reparations package for black residents, that was passed by the City Council, after being introduced by Wes Bellamy--Vice Mayor, youngest person ever to be elected to the Charlottesville city council, and the only current black councilmember. These reparation policies gave $950,000 to the African American Heritage Center, $250,000 to parks in black communities, $2.5 million to public housing redevelopment, $50,000 annually to those living in public housing to get free GED training, and $50,000 to anyone that lives 80% below the Area Medium Income to have scholarships to go to local community colleges.(5)
Besides being from the south, I also am a Jew. In 1952, the Luxembourg Reparations Agreement was signed, and West Germany paid the new state of Israel over $800 million in reparations for crimes committed against Jewish Europeans during the Holocaust.(6) In 1865, about a hundred years earlier, Special Field Order No. 15 was issued, redistributing 400,000 acres of land to newly freed black refugees in forty-acre segments along the southern coastline.(7) By fall of the same year, President Andrew Johnson overturned the order and families were violently forced off. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when we saw Nazis gather in Charlottesville waving swastikas and yelling, “Kill Jews” and “Blood and soil”. Anti-semitism often forms the core of white nationalists’ ideology, who see Jews as a faux-white race that has prevented the inevitable imposition of white supremacy.(8) Race was politically constructed and is manipulated to legitimize the stealing of land and other resources of “non-white” people in order to produce wealth and power for “white” people. What is classified as “white” has changed over time; in the 19th century for example, the Irish were not considered white. Their assimilation into “whiteness” was afforded by their skin tone and earned through the adoption of pro-slavery, anti-black political positions.(9) Similarly, Jews have been assimilated into whiteness. We saw the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer, originally vote against moving the Robert E. Lee statue, but after seeing the violent backlash of white supremacists and perhaps feeling what it’s like to be a target of hate, changed his opinion and declared that the statue must go. Signer was reminded that none of us are safe and free until we are all safe and free, and that even white folks must learn to see that our liberation is bound up in the liberation of others.
It is my hope that we - white people - boldly face the inequitable distribution of ownership and power in this country by owning up to our relation to it and showing up for the safety and freedom of people of color. In our personal journeys, in community, in our co-ops, every single day presents this opportunity. As we think about the young undocumented immigrants who fear for their safety, I invite you to watch this anti-fascist ad made by the government in 1943, whose message still rings true today:
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