Black Lives Matter.
By Teju Ravilochan
A response to the structurally-designed separation in our country.
Below is an excerpt from an email written by Gather For’s Founder Teju Ravilochan to our team. We wanted to share this publicly to add our message to the movement: Black Lives Matter. We’re pledging to do our small part in responding — as individual humans, teammates, and an organization working to build a more just society.
This last week, our full collective humanity was on display. It has made me think a lot. A large impetus for our work at Gather For is the question: “How do we care for a whole human being?” Our answer is not innovative. It’s ancient: community.
We live in a culture that makes the role of community in our individual flourishing invisible. America tells us to be “self-made.” It lifts up stories of those who have “achieved success” by working hard with a pioneering and trailblazing spirit. We have these cultural narratives while also holding the fear that “more for you is less for me.” We are afraid of welfare and strengthening our safety net because we are afraid that our hard work will be taken advantage of by someone lazy, inept, and criminal. And it might be that these stories are deeply embedded in our cultural mindset because they help people in power remain in power.
Michelle Alexander describes in The New Jim Crow how slavery once included white people, black people, and Native Americans. It was generally described as “indentured servitude” for white people, but the practice (though less harsh) was in many ways similar. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon formed an alliance of indentured servants and black slaves, and led the first rebellion in the colonies. Bacon’s Rebellion was nearly successful in overpowering plantation owners and the armed forces of the Governor of Virginia. Terrified by the narrow escape in suppressing the rebellion, plantation owners developed a strategy that would prevent future uprisings by sowing discord in what was a united faction. They approached white indentured servants and said, “We will free you. And we will pay you. Not much, but you won’t be ‘slaves’ anymore. In exchange, stop talking to black people.” Their idea was to ensure that former white indentured servants would never again ally with black slaves, because they wouldn’t want to risk this new-found freedom and the receipt of wages for their labor. Here’s Michelle Alexander:
Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves […] Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.
Over centuries, as “the morally right” thing to do became not to discriminate against black people (at least overtly), those in power have found subtler and subtler ways to keep that wedge between white people and black people, who might otherwise see commonality in their experience, in order to secure or maintain power. When Nixon ran for President, the Presidents from 1933 until 1969 (with eight years of exception with Eisenhower) had been Democrats. Wanting to devise a winning strategy that could win for Republicans (without being a war hero like Eisenhower), Nixon had to find a way to break up the coalition of the working class (whites and blacks), who tended to vote Democratic. He wanted to find a way to get whites, rich and poor, to vote as a block, which could be a coalition that would help him win as a Republican. He launched ads subtly depicting Blacks and Latinos as taking advantage of the welfare state, enshrined by FDR, and communicated to low-income whites, “you’re about to become rich. Vote with those who are rich like you will be.” Alexander again:
Just as race had been used at the turn of the century by Southern elites to rupture class solidarity at the bottom of the income ladder, race as a national issue had broken up the Democratic New Deal “bottom-up” coalition — a coalition dependent on substantial support from all voters, white and black, at or below the median income.
I am not an expert. And this is not an exhaustive summary of the events that explain why our country is the way that it is today. But it is a small peek into how race-based division in our country is deliberate and designed for.
We have a role in responding. It will not be fast, as healing this centuries-old wound will take time. But it is a response to the structurally-designed for separation in our country. When all of us see ourselves as on our own to meet our needs, a story deliberately sown into our national mythos, we are robbed of an ancient capacity and wisdom that the way that we meet our basic needs and flourish is through community — through coming together. While we have so much work to do to do this well, my hope for Gather For is that we can remove the barriers that exist for neighbors to support each other. That neighborhoods can become powerful in coming together, whether they are built up of white people or black people or brown people. We will not be responsible for this emerging, because this is just what humans do. But we can be a part of making that coming together easier, less obstructed. Even if we learn how to bring a handful of humans together, across divides of race and class, in the kind of friendship that says, “more for you is more for me,” we will be part of what it means for our country to begin to heal. Let us do our part this week.