And now we are being asked to excavate down yet another layer – into the cultural fabric woven from the deep socio-economic failures which make our work necessary.
I was on a conference call last week with organizers from Movement for Black Lives addressing conservation and environmental leaders. For me it was more than informative. Of course I have known that environmental destruction disproportionately affects disenfranchised “People of Color.” Love Canal was not in any of the tony neighborhoods of Niagara Falls, and the ongoing drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan would not have occurred in Grosse Pointe.
The deeper point here is that our entire way of life has increasingly hinged on the few aggregating power and wealth by exploiting the many.
There have always been, and probably always will be hatred between disparate groups – for all manner of reasons. There is no love lost between the Philippines and the Chinese, and animosity between then Hutu and Tutsi people led to the Rwandan Genocide in the early 1990s. And of course the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians continues to fester and taint our policies in the Middle East.
But I believe the racism that poisons our well is deeper that these internecine battles, and seems to be ‘bred in the bone’ of European economic assumptions. An extremely reductionist view (for the sake of expediency) traces the Catholic Church managing the pubic commons after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
While there were kingdoms, and fiefdoms throughout Europe, Common Law, managed by the Church, more-or-less stitched this all together. It provided a social fabric in which people could survive a reasonably good life with enough food, shelter, and warmth, in the good company of their neighbors.
But in the 16th Century in England, those with more power than the commoners kicked out the Catholic Church, and began enclosing the Commons – thereby aggregating personal wealth at the expense of all others (except their wealthy pals). This was known as the “Enclosure Movement” and was at cause for mass starvation, and at one point, imprisonment of 10% of the adults in Ireland for ‘destitution.’
Wealth enterprises – like the Virginia Company, and various privateers making their way into the “New World” made use of these prisoners as land-labor, but more importantly for our discussion on racism, as sailors on the African slave trade ships – bringing slaves from Africa to America to toil in the fields.
Life on these ships was unimaginably brutal for the cargo-slaves, but it was not a whole lot better for the destitute Irish in servitude to their ship masters. And by the 17th Century, the sailors – realizing that they were “in the same boat” with the slaves, began to mutiny, killing the ship masters and liberating the African slaves.
This heralded in the Buccaneer movement – along with many other multi-racial acts of rebellion against the ruling class. It took almost a century to quell the unrest, but over that time the ruling class devised all manner of systems to divide the blacks from the whites – mostly in subtle terms of conferring privilege to the whites over the blacks. The old “divide and conquer” routine.
Through policing, labor preferences, educational advantages, and economic opportunities, whites in the “New World” – became accustomed to these privileges. This has distracted us from the extreme inequities that make these ‘privileges’ possible.
On this Juneteenth I want to honor our black brothers and sisters; listen to them, and join them in overturning a 400-year legacy of class oppression.