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Structures of justice

A few modest corrections won't fix the injustice in our society; radical change is needed.
By Warren R. Ross
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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Illustration by Fiona King

When the Mongol warriors swept into Europe from the steppes of Asia, or so historians tell us, they would say to beggars: “Go with God’s curse, for if he loved you as he loves me, he would have provided for you.”

When I came across that quotation in a New Yorker article, it really hit home. Isn’t that, I asked myself, even if in less crass language, our society’s attitude toward those in need of help? Why else, when budgets are cut, are child and health care for the poor among the first items slashed? Why are prison rehabilitation programs scrapped, denounced as “coddling”? And why, in virtually every community, are the most derelict schools in areas of poverty? We may not say “go with God’s curse,” but too often we act as if that’s what we meant.

A couple of years ago I would have considered such instances of unfairness and repression as shortcomings in a basically decent system. I no longer believe that. I have come to realize that there is a basic flaw in the structure of our society, and where once I thought that injustice was susceptible to reform by people of goodwill, I am no longer sure. Instead, I now believe that those of us who consider ourselves enlightened and well intentioned bear some of the blame for failing to come to grips with the underlying dynamics: that there is class warfare in our society, not from the bottom up but from the top down, and that the first step in reform has to be a willingness to face that unpalatable fact.

These conclusions did not come to me as an epiphany. They grew slowly as I researched and wrote Funding Justice, the new Skinner House book about the social-change philanthropy of the Veatch Program of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, in Manhasset, New York. Gradually, I came to understand that rampant poverty and injustice persist because powerful forces are intent on making them persist. And as I observed how Veatch funding helps grass-roots organizations tackle their problems by learning to use the levers of the democratic process—by actively fighting back—I also came to understand what it takes to effect the essential structural changes. The more than fifty interviews I conducted as I explored Veatch-supported programs thus turned out to be not only book research but also a voyage of discovery.

Fighting Injustice in Liberal New York

One of my first interviews was with Mary Dailey, former executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. She told me the coalition had been formed in the 1970s to save what was left of Bronx borough in New York City as an affordable blue-collar community by stopping the spreading blight of arson and housing abandonment. Under the slogan of “Don’t Move! Improve!” the coalition staff identified and trained volunteer leaders who, in turn, organized tenants building by building, block by block, fought the landlords, stirred up an indifferent bureaucracy, and dared to confront the drug dealers, arsonists, and exploiters in their own midst.

But when local activists began to succeed, powerful outside forces threatened to crush them. Redlining banks and insurance companies refused to issue loans and policies, and even apartment houses that had been saved and refurbished by tenant associations were once again left to decay. Dailey said Freddie Mac, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, was not enforcing its good repair requirements for buildings it financed and was selling them to speculators. By 1990, 167 Freddie Mac buildings defaulted on their loans and 16 were about to be foreclosed. Still the agency refused to act, even after coalition volunteers—overcoming fear and language problems—spoke up at its annual meeting.

When the court-appointed receiver at one of the most notorious Freddie Mac buildings used harassing tactics to drive out the remaining tenants, a busload of volunteers descended on the office of a Freddie Mac director in a nearby upscale suburb. That night Mary Dailey got a phone call. “The guy was really mad,” Dailey said, and quoted him, laughing, “‘You people have to stop this sort of stuff.’” But the “stuff” worked: Freddie Mac finally responded, hiring someone to inspect their buildings, foreclosing some for lack of repairs and reselling them to more reputable landlords.

It proved that what Dailey calls “the hit” can work as a last resort, but not in isolation. With the help of its Veatch funding, the Northwest Bronx Coalition had laid the groundwork by showing the disenfranchised how to use the democratic process: developing leadership skills; enlisting volunteers; and then escalating their efforts through petitions, testimony at public hearings, getting media attention, and, if need be, through direct action. This basic formula has worked for many Veatch grantees and can serve as a model for anyone seeking to make ours a more just society.

Ironically, having stabilized their community, the residents are now at risk of being driven out by gentrification and rising rents, as real estate interests invade what they like to call “SoBro.”

‘Keep Austin Weird’

It would be comforting to think that only “they” are guilty of inflicting injustice on the powerless, but the example of Austin, Texas, shows that the structural forces that sustain oppression are often supported even by those who consider themselves progressive and enlightened.

Taking pride in the fact that the rest of the state considers their city, well, different, students at the University of Texas during my visit were wearing T-shirts that read “Keep Austin Weird.” And, indeed, when Austin elected a “green” city council that then enacted a “smart growth” policy, environmental organizations cheered.

All except PODER.

PODER (Spanish for “power”) is People Organ¬ized in Defense of Earth and Its Resources; it defends the environment in East Austin, the city’s primarily Mexican-American section. PODER broke ranks with its environmental allies, says Susana Almanza, its director and cofounder, because no one else was “looking at how the environment interlocks with humanity. Yes, we must take care of the water, but we must also take care of the people who are drinking it.” In effect the smart growth plan would have removed the African-American and Mexican-American residents of East Austin along with undesirable industries.

The smart growth program, PODER’s cofounder Sylvia Herrera points out, in order to rein in urban sprawl and protect the watershed, designated East Austin as a residential development zone “as if there were no people living here.” PODER was able to secure zoning changes that softened some of the impact of the smart growth plan, but nothing could stop the cycle of gentrification and displacement once East Austin became a desirable place to live.

PODER had first learned how to challenge the structural forces that preserve injustice when a petroleum company tried to expand a tank farm in the middle of the community. “That campaign has become the model for how we do our work,” Herrera says. “We set our own agenda, and then plan the strategy for achieving it.” The tank farm strategy involved forming coalitions with African-American neighborhood groups, going door to door to enlist support, doing research to assess children’s health problems, training leaders to testify at hearings, writing letters, holding community meetings, and staging a “toxic tour” for elected officials and media.

It worked. The tank farm was shut down and PODER received a Sierra Club Special Service Award, but that was before the well-intentioned smart growth policy split the environmental coalition. “We’re all for protecting the watershed and for smart growth and for recycling,” Almanza sums up. “All we want to know is how these things will impact the community we’re living in. You can’t just look at the environment without looking at the human beings who are being impacted.”

The Other White Meat

Visiting the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, I heard how something called the pork checkoff, which sounds so innocent, is part of the pervasive and unrelenting drive to replace family farms with huge industrialized operations. Though denounced by a U.S. district judge as “unconstitutional and rotten,” the checkoff persists due to the efforts of the National Pork Producers Council, aided by the federal Department of Agriculture. Briefly, the way it works is this. Every time a hog is sold, the seller is assessed 40 cents per $100 of sale value to promote the consumption of pork. Over the years, the bulk of the money has gone to the Pork Producers Council and its state associations, all dominated by corporate farm interests. The council has used the millions thus generated to run its “The Other White Meat” campaign—but, say family farmers, only the meat of penned-up hogs on factory farms is white. Pasture-raised pork is on the pink or reddish side. Hence the campaign has increased demand for white pork and has thus been a major contributing factor in driving family farmers out of business.

In 1998 the crisis center and its allies in the Campaign for Family Farms petitioned to get a national referendum on the checkoff. The Pork Council spent $4 million in opposition, but nonetheless hog farmers voted 53 to 47 percent to stop the checkoff. With Clinton in the White House, then–Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman ordered its termination, but after the 2000 election, his successor reversed his order. The family farmers sued and won, but the Bush administration appealed, and so the checkoff continues. The final decision is up to the Supreme Court, but since the court recently upheld a similar checkoff for beef, the prospects don’t look good.

Is this class warfare? Some may argue that the victims in this case are middle class, so call it economic warfare instead. What is undeniable is that our society is undergoing a concerted concentration of power in the hands of the haves at the expense not only of the have-nots but of all who have less.

In light of this imbalance of power the farmers in the Missouri Rural Crisis Center learned that to survive they needed to set aside their proud, individualistic traditions and form coalitions with noisier allies, even to become noisier themselves. As crisis center member Margot McMillen recalls, “Our first demonstration [at the state capitol] was very polite, so nobody paid attention. The next time, we unfurled some 500 yards of petitions from the balcony. That woke up the media.”

And Roger Allison, executive director of the crisis center, says about the need to form alliances: “Farmers can’t win justice in isolation from other segments of society.” Early on, they invited Jesse Jackson to help get them organized. “As we explained to him,” Allison says, “this group of white farmers was a social justice organization, not just an economic pressure group,” and they have since joined forces with labor unions, civil rights organizations, gay and lesbian groups—“any group fighting for justice, equity, and fairness.”

The Way Forward

When I finished writing Funding Justice, I felt admiration, anger, determination, pride, and hope. The first four emotions are probably self-evident. But what about hope? In light of so much misery and injustice, is hope justified?

It depends. The stories told me by Veatch grant recipients are all stories of our society’s thoughtless indifference and deliberate exploitation. But they are also success stories. These grass-roots organizations have found ways to fight back, from organizing to save Bronx apartment houses to moving a tank farm out of East Austin. They have learned how to make the democratic process work. While those at the top of the power pyramid have been pretty much running things for their own benefit, there is still the basic framework that makes government by and for the people a possibility, and the Veatch Program has shown how relatively modest funding and a strategic agenda can help the disenfranchised claim their rightful share of the imperiled American dream. Therein lies the hope.

As UUA President William Sinkford has said: “There is a war being fought for the soul of America. . . . It’s being fought on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, in school boards and in zoning hearings. It is a war whose outcome will answer the question: Whose America is it?”

The answer is very much in doubt, but if victories such as those that Veatch funding has supported can be won in a few places, they can be won more widely. What it will take is for enough of us to follow the Veatch example of boldness, generosity, and imagination. It will not be an easy or even pleasant path, but it starts with greater awareness of the way the system works and how to fix it.

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