A History Divided

The Poverty Initiative Immersion toured much of Wilkes-Barre on Sunday. Images of deindustrialization, of the human and environmental toll of a changing economic structures are staggering — calling us to deeply question how we are forming economic, political and human communities

January 19, 2013

Ranwa Hammamy

The second day of our immersion found us beginning once more in AD30, discussing three concepts that could each be the focus of a semester-long course of their own: rights, religion, and race. We opened our reflection with a conversation on the necessity of education and analysis in the generation of effective social action. What struck me the most about the group’s discussion was the knowledge based in the experience of working with others who have organized movements for change without first engaging in an in-depth exploration of the system at hand. The ideas put forth by the group beautifully connected with the tree metaphor presented in the previous day – when we don’t engage in an intentional analysis of what exists beneath the diverse struggles we face, we end up focusing not on the roots, but on the leaves of the tree. As a result, the system stays in place, firmly planted, and new problematic leaves grow. Intentional analysis has the power to bring us together more effectively, as it encourages us to look beyond what we face as individuals or specific communities. The informed combination of our struggles creates a form of social action that all remain connected to, regardless of the issue at hand in the present moment, because we can better appreciation its relation to our universal well-being.

The discussion then transitioned to a focus on “rights” and almost instantaneously we came across our first major concern – what do we mean when we say “rights”? Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign spoke about shifting the focus from “civil rights” to “human rights”, leading me to believe that there is something more universal that must be at the core of our efforts when we are working to bring people together. As one student said, he envisions rights as being “the minimum, the floor” that all are entitled to have. The question we must then ask is what are those basic rights? What do we define as universal, can we even define what is universal in a society that is as diverse as this one? The reality facing many social movements is their inevitable limitation: whomever is at the forefront represents one voice from the margins. Thus, there is a danger for movements that attempt to achieve basic human rights to unintentionally exclude others who have been pushed into the margins. This pattern can run the risk of continuing the division among the dispossessed…unless we remember to engage in the intentional analysis that brings attention to the systemic concerns behind each of our struggles. Later, when the conversation incorporated the Declaration of Independence, the “God-given rights of people”, I could not help but wonder if we need a change in our view of this document’s message. The Declaration of Independence is often seen as a self-assertive document, and thus has served as a reference point for many individual movements. But for an effort such as this one, which places unity at the forefront of bringing essential change, should we adapt our interpretation of this statement as a reminder to observe the rights of others? When our own rights are violated and denied, it is easy to become trapped in a concern for the alteration in our own situation. But if our social framework is based in an understanding of others’ rights, in a gratitude for the humanity and worth of those around us (as well as ourselves), appreciating needs different from our own and uniting across lines becomes a more natural response.

When the conversation shifted towards the nature of “rights” in religion, I admit that I became a little uncomfortable. Having been raised I a non-Christian environment, I am concerned when conversations on religion in social movements remain focused on Christianity and the Bible. While that conversation is an essential part of our discussion, particularly when examining the oppressive forces at play in US history, rights (if they are truly universal) cannot be defined by a religious, let alone solely Christian, framework. I realize that this statement is potentially controversial, and I do not mean to say that religion plays no role in our work to assert or defend our human rights. But the defining work, in order to be universally applicable and unifying, cannot be based in an element of society that not all share. That being said, our reflections on and protection of these rights can only be strengthened by a deep religious understanding of their relevance to whatever faith we may proclaim.

After lunch, we returned to discuss perhaps the most complex topic yet – race. The presentation by Jeffrey Perry began with a powerful statement – “there is no white race.” Having read some of Tim Wise’s anti-racism work, I was familiar with some of the ideas surrounding the intentional construction of race, but this presentation offered a deeply historical analysis that was conducted by Theodore Allen. Allen’s theory identifies race as being a social construct carefully crafted by the ruling class. His analysis beginning in early-colonial America presents the invention of the “white race” as a way of preventing those in the lower classes from coming together against the wealthiest members of society. By dividing the poor with the invention of the “white race”, the wealthy created a system that united Euro-Americans of different class levels against poor African-Americans. Thus, “plantation politics”, as defined by Du Bois, began to take hold of our society in its earliest days, pitting poor whites against African-Americans, and creating a system of social control that left the wealthy untouched. Class unity among the poor was effectively prevented with the creation of this new social construct. Among the inevitable conclusions of this analysis is the reality that modern-day racial oppression only serves to perpetuate class division, and serves as one of the greatest hurdles to the creation of a movement that unites the poor and dispossessed. So long as racism is allowed to continue, there will not be an effective effort to address the glaringly unjust economic disparity in our society. Perry’s presentation was a powerful reminder of why efforts like the Poor People’s Campaign and the Poverty Initiative are needed – to show the shared story, to create a class-consciousness that unites across different lines, and to recognize what is at the root of our experience of oppression so that we can come together to assert our truly universal human rights.

Our day ended with a tour of different key sites in the Abolitionist (and anti-Abolitionist) movements, highlighting once more the division that perpetuates the oppressive systems in our society. One of the prime examples was our stop at Five Points, where the poor of different backgrounds co-existed peacefully for some time. However, this harmony dissipated with the institution of the draft in the Civil War, and division between Euro-Americans and African-Americans surged. Seen as the cause of the draft, African-Americans became targets of hostility, which came to a peak in the “Five Point Riots”, in which dozens were killed and unity among the poor in the area was destroyed. Our tour continued to the site of Collect Pond, which had been a location of poor living conditions for many across colorlines, and the African Burial Ground, now a national monument identifying the location where hundreds of Africans were buried in the 17th and 18th century. One of the memorial walls had an inscription that dedicated its existence to those who “are not forgotten”, an important message to remember as we examine the roots of the division ad oppression present in our society today. We continued to Printers Row and City Hall, where the role of mass media in generating social movements through the endorsement of a particular stance on a divisive issue was considered in relation to our work today.

Our tour and day ended with visits to Zuccotti Park and Wall Street, key sites of the Occupy movement. During our visit to these sites, we were reminded of how they were places where people were united against oppressive economic systems, showing us how barrier-crossing was possible and functioning today. But we were also reminded of one of the greatest risks of coming together – that is when the attempts to divide us are the strongest. The lessons of the day flowed through my mind – our actions must be grounded in deep reflection on and understanding of the forces at play. Only then will we be able to move beyond our own narrow understandings of what rights we are struggling for, and create a universal movement that is based in bonds that defy past, present, and future attempts to prevent unity among the marginalized.

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