Connecting our struggles across identity politics: a powerful force for justice

Broad-based political organizing

While only 3 months into the Western year of 2015, we have experienced more discussion of the reality of anti-blackness in America than the entire year of 2014. For that matter, 2013 as well. The new media engagement and willingness to report on racism suggests a couple of things: they finally “get it” or there are enough folks standing up and testifying to racism openly. It is unlikely, though wishful, that the media has experienced an abrupt period of enlightenment. We are hearing more about anti-blackness because of the heightened attention of the epidemic of police brutality after the Trayvon Martin case and more recently Michael Brown and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.(1) The movement immediately offered a broad platform which galvanized support from different segregated identity politics: police brutality, criminalization and discrimination of women and children, poverty, community dis-investment, lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgendered rights, immigrant rights. The recent outcry from several colleges on black student isolation/segregation is the most recent witnessing of the individual and institutional anti-blackness legacy in the US. But the attention to a culture of anti-blackness is broader and deeper than we may realize: the conservative bastion of medicine in America, the New England Journal of Medicine, published a commentary on “Black lives matter”; faculty members at academic institutions are speaking out about their institutional evidence of anti-blackness; pro-black equity speakers are highlighting at various universities across the US; health departments are documenting the effects of racism and poverty as factors detrimental to health equities. This broad net of protest against the dehumanizing ways society has treated black people and other marginalized communities witnesses-state sanctioned violence, the chronic dis-investment and segregation, the anti-blackness of America. Through policy and practice anti-blackness has enforced segregation and inequity which continues today. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign, formed by three women, invite a coalition of historically oppressed populations to uplift the struggle of each other to build a stronger network of support for each struggle.

Another broad-based social movement has been growing in North Carolina since 2006, increasing public protests after the Republican take-over of the legislature in 2013: Forward Together Movement/Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HToJ). (2) Their platform includes: high-quality public education, living wages, healthcare for all, racial justice, voting rights, affordable higher education, fairness for state contracting, affordable housing, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, collective bargaining and worker safety, immigrants’ rights, a new civil rights act, and bringing the troops home. Their focus has been to challenge and change the state legislative and executive body and political machinery which recently passed legislation inhibiting voter rights and slashing of public funding for social, educational, and health programs. Their movement has spread to Georgia, South Carolina. Tennessee, and Missouri and has impacted the legislation and voting turnout. Consisting of more than 150 coalition partners they continue to stage protests called Moral Mondays at the state assembly in North Carolina.

Identity politics, their connections, and why

These broad-based coalitions emphasize the interconnectedness of identity politics: injustice and oppression mediated through those with power against those without. Communities are segregated by race, income, education, housing, employability and access to recreational and transportation resources. The chicken and the egg argument can be used to describe the segregation of communities of color and its resultant economic segregation. Cities continue to gentrify and segregate by housing cost and education. (3) Here in Baltimore we rank 13th out of 50 large cities in gentrification and the resultant segregation between those with low and higher incomes; Washington, DC took a stunning 3rd place. Even though we see the direct negative outcome on funding for public education from recent public subsidies to wealthy developers who invite more racial and economic segregation, our local and state governments continue to directly and indirectly discriminate against the marginalized. These neoliberal practices of community development: policies and practices which grow the gap between the rich and the poor, drive development in the US and beyond leading to greater segregation. As reported by The Atlantic’s CityLab recently “It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider; it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros…Race is a significant factor. Economic segregation is positively associated with the share of population that is black, Latino, or Asian, and negatively associated with the shares of white residents.” (4,5)

The growth in income inequality and the resultant segregation over the last 10 years has raised awareness for some, but most are still asleep to the causes and effects. Scientific American recently commented on the reason for this “dream-like” state that Americans are in: “At the core of the American Dream is the belief that anyone who works hard can move up economically regardless of his or her social circumstances…Sure enough, people think that moving up is significantly more likely than it is in reality…..By overemphasizing individual mobility, we ignore important social determinants of success like family inheritance, social connections, and structural discrimination…We may not want to believe it, but the United States is now the most unequal of all Western nations. To make matters worse, America has considerably less social mobility than Canada and Europe.” (6)

In the 21st century, we continue to live the myth of meritocracy, that we are equally rewarded for our hard work, there is a level playing field that values each person and community similarly. One glaring example of this is the difference in housing value in black and white neighborhoods. The Brookings Institute published a comparison of wealth in white and black neighborhoods showing “wealthy minority neighborhoods had less home value per dollar of income than wealthy white neighborhoods”…“poor white neighborhoods had more home value per income than poor minority neighborhoods.” Of the 100 metropolitan areas studied, even when homeowners had similar incomes, black-owned homes were valued at 18% less than white-owned homes. In effect, the higher the percentage of blacks in a neighborhood, the less a home is worth. This correlation begins when there is greater than 10% of black residents in a neighborhood. (7) Another example of race-based development and housing value is evident by public and private investments targeted to communities which are not majority black (less than 40%) as documented in a recent study by Harvard researchers. (8) This study confirms previous studies on race-based discriminatory community development practices. Development of areas with majority residents of color do occur. However, the displacement of the existing residents and racial gentrification usually result in the neighborhood achieving a majority white status. These practices are well documented through urban renewal in the 1950’s and subsequent government housing programs like HOPE VI and Promise Zones. The 1950‘s and current Johns Hopkins Medical Campus expansion in Baltimore into almost 150 acres are examples of mass removal of more than 1500 black families using eminent domain and tax subsidies as public support. The re-population with a different race and class was the intention of both projects, further displacing low income and black residents for majority middle and market rate residents.

Power of collective resistance

Indeed the marginalization of various political identity communities do not occur in a vacuum, separate from each other. The #BlackLivesMatter and Forward Together movements remind us that the legacy of state-sanctioned violence in all its forms continue to segregate and penalize the less powerful residents of our society. A higher percentage of black-descendant people are poor and live in communities disinvested of healthy foods, competent schools and health facilities with salaries to attract competent staff, healthy environments, safe and sanitary homes, and recreational centers. Low income people of all races/ethnicities are living in similarly disinvested communities. Low income people are employed in high-turnover jobs with little job security, career opportunity, living wages and paid sick leave or time off. The criminalization of people living in low income communities far surpass those living in moderate and higher income communities. The oppression of women, those with disabilities, and sexual minorities occur across all social and economic systems. The power of coalitions to connect across the commonality of discrimination and oppression is great. When each struggle is aware and directly and indirectly support the struggle of another, there is a stronger force moving forward against all oppressive norms and practices. From state-sanctioned segregated and disinvested communities, to disinvested schools, recreation centers, public and social services, health services, to mass incarceration, the thread is a systematic violence against people deemed inferior, of diminished worth. Broad-based movements can offer a platform for various local and national issue-specific or identity political movements to connect and coalesce. Then each small act of daily individual resistance becomes the foundation for building resistance and organizational power across multiple issues; individual organizations/movements collect together to build larger networks of resistance connecting all vulnerable and historically and currently oppressed groups. This type of network of resistance reinforces resilience – I am my sister’s keeper and she is mine. This network of resistance is necessary to resist and change the network of violence currently enforced against all our marginalized communities.

1. #BlackLivesMatter

2. Forward Together Movement, North Carolina

3. Governing. Gentrification

4. The Atlantic.City Lab. Economic segregation

5. New York Times. Income inequality is bad for your health

6. Brookings Institute. Segregation and housing value

7. Scientific American. The myth of the American Dream

8. Jackelyn Hwanga and Robert J. Sampsona. Divergent Pathways of Gentrification: Racial
Inequality and the Social Order of Renewal in Chicago Neighborhoods. American Sociological Review 2014, 79(4) 726–751

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