Tangled Roots and Bitter Fruit: What Ferguson Can Teach the Food Movement

Food First | 12.10.2014

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By Eric Holt-Giménez

The public outcry following the decision of the grand jury of St. Louis County, Missouri, not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown reaches across color lines. The rage and exasperation in the streets are just the tip of the iceberg. Grief, sadness, and disillusion are seeping into the hearts and minds of many people who may not be the target of police violence, but who know a miscarriage of justice when they see it—over and over again. There is guilt and fear, too, among those who sense the police have gone too far, too many times, and that the widespread militarization of our police forces since 9/11 is making us less, rather than more, secure.

Darren Wilson used his own fear as his defense in the flawed grand jury proceedings that saved him from indictment. Wilson’s fear is no excuse for murder, but his fear is not imaginary—it is the foundational terror of apartheid. Apartheid in South Africa (1948-1984) was the systemic oppression of the black majority to protect the privileges of the white minority. There are, however, many forms of apartheid. They all require violence and the abuse of civil and human rights. Inherent within apartheid is the minority’s fear that it will lose its privilege, exposing it to retaliation and revenge. For apartheid, law enforcement—in the streets and in the courtroom—is supposed to ensure this does not happen.

Comparing our society to apartheid is so repugnant as to be almost incomprehensible… except to the African American communities suffering from unparalleled and disproportionate levels of violence and incarceration; or to the immigrant communities who pick our crops and process, cook, and serve our food, yet have the highest levels of food insecurity in the nation; or to the underserved communities of color whose poor wages, poor schools, and poor diets have resulted in an epidemic of diet-related diseases.

We both know what many food justice activists have felt for a long time—that all the organic carrots and farmers’ markets in the world are not going to end hunger unless we also end racism.

Unlike the South African apartheid regime, in the United States there is no official policy sanctioning the separation and oppression of people on the basis of race. But by 2050, people of color will be the majority in this country. If the war on young black and immigrant men and women continues, and if the widening wealth gap and “privatization of everything” proceed apace, the u?ber-privileged minority will indeed have recreated the social and material conditions of apartheid. And unless we all work to stop it, our legal and political institutions will be swept into the project.

The morning after the general prosecutor’s late-night announcement a colleague of mine came to the Food First office in Oakland to discuss possible research projects. Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper is a young, accomplished author and blogger. Educated at Dartmouth, she holds advanced degrees from Harvard and the University of California. She is African American and the mother of three young children. We tried to talk about work that would highlight and inform the challenges communities of color face in providing healthy, affordable food to those that need it most.

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We tried, but the murder of black youth by the police in Ferguson and Oakland kept invading our thoughts. “I just keep thinking about my father, my brother, and my son,” she said, gazing off, her voice dropping slightly. I choked up, overcome with sadness and anger. We both know what many food justice activists have felt for a long time—that all the organic carrots and farmers’ markets in the world are not going to end hunger unless we also end racism. Not just the racism inherent to our food system, but its pervasiveness in the food movement itself.

As a person of mixed heritage I know that racism has tangled roots: white privilege, internalized oppression, fear, guilt, and grief. I also know that while it is structural, it is also visceral, bound up in our psyche and our emotions, hard to get at, and painful to work through. This is why many people in the food movement choose not to address it. They are afraid that addressing racism is just too hard, too complicated, and too messy. They’re afraid that bringing up the issues of oppression and privilege will end up dividing the movement rather than strengthening it. They’re afraid. They are also mistaken.

Ferguson should remind all those committed to social change that dismantling racism isn’t optional. Neither is it work that takes us away from other, more important tasks. We can’t have a just judicial system, or an impartial law enforcement system, or a sustainable food system on the foundation of an oppressive social and economic system.

Dismantling racism isn’t extra work. It is the work.

Featured image: Ferguson protest. Photo by Jamelle Bouie

Also in this issue of News & Views:

  • “With Hip Hop and Pop Ups, Oakland Food Policy Council Celebrates Five Years” by Leonor Hurtado
  • Exploding Myths and Inspiring Change for 40 Years

Download the Winter 2014-15 issue of Food First News & Views