“The Caste System and the Politics of Moral Fusion” Remarks given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Poor Peoples Campaign’s Moral Fusion Summit of January 26th, 2019
When you hear the long term impact of growing up in poverty in this country that Professor McLoyd just spoke about, it is simply unacceptable that 25% of our youth are growing up in poverty. It’s simply monstrous and here I don’t mean to insult monsters! This has been going on far too long, and it’s something we are going to change.
My name is Joe Summers, for over thirty years I’ve been the Pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation and a community activist. The first thing I want to say today is how grateful I am for your being here today. Your presence here is making a concrete difference in helping us figure out what should be the agenda for the Poor Peoples’ campaign as we strive to challenge the racial-economic caste here in Washtenaw county. We are in the bottom 8% of counties for income mobility so clearly we have work to do.
What we are doing here today has been inspired by the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina where people came together around a diverse area of social concerns, had people from each area of concern agree on what should be the primary goals in that area, and then collectively commit themselves to working towards all these goals. Though they began with far fewer people than we have here today they can now mobilize up to 100,000 people at a time in North Carolina. That’s the kind of thing we are hoping to once again be able to do here in Michigan because we will need those kinds of mobilizations if we are going to be able to achieve the kinds of systemic changes that we are needing in this country, in Michigan, and in this county.
I want to take a few moments to talk about a couple of the key concepts behind this strategy.
First, is the concept of a racial-economic caste system because many of us are not familiar with the language of caste at least when it comes to thinking about our society. When we talk about a racial-economic caste system we’re talking about a system that on the basis of race and class works to keep people trapped in systemic poverty, but also works against social mobility at all levels.
(Chart One) To illustrate how this works--what neighborhood you live in tends to define where you get to go to school. Where you go to school tends to define whether or not you drop out (which is a major factor in whether or not you end up in prison) or whether you go to college and if you go to college what kind of college you go to. What kind of college you go to and whether or not you finish your degree has everything to do with what kind of job or career you end up with. Then what kind of job you have tends to define what kind of neighborhood you end up living in. So we see in our society how where you start out so often predicts your life trajectory and where you end up. Within this system things like the Criminal justice system, health issues, one’s immigration status, and other forms of discrimination are among the other biggest factors in where and how one gets trapped.
(Chart Two) It’s important to recognize that in talking about the caste system we’re not just talking about a cycle that keeps people trapped in poverty, but a system that works to keep people stuck at a variety of different levels. Thus at the lowest level in our society we find the unemployed and the homeless, but just above them we find the working poor (who may also be homeless) people who because they are working for minimum wage often cannot afford housing or other vital necessities. Just above them are lower middle class and then mid-middle class people. A recent bail bond study found that over half our population would struggle to come up with a $500 jail bond which says something about how many are really struggling. Above the middle class we have the upper middle class—the economically top 20% which is the only part of our population that has been doing well economically over the last forty years. At the top are the wealthy 5%. At the very top are the 1/10 of 1% who own the controlling interested in our economic institutions. As you look at each of these populations you can study where they tend to live, where they go to school, whether or not they go to college, what kind of college they go to and whether they complete college (which is often related) and then what kinds of jobs or careers they have. In a country that claims to be a meritocracy, it’s striking that the single biggest predictor of success in college is parental income.
(Third Chart) Third, it’s important to understand that what allows the domination system to continue is the fact that within this racial-economic caste system there are a wide variety of ways that it functions to pit us against each other by privileging some and discriminating against others on the basis of a wide variety of other factors besides race and income, factors such as sex, gender identity and sexual orientation, employment status, disabilities, skin color, body size, religion etc. Almost any difference can be made into a way of privileging some over others leaving those above paranoid about losing their privileges and those beneath resentful of those who have them. Each of these fault lines become carved into who we are as they tend to define who we identify with, who we see as our own, who we see as “the other,” who we trust and who we don’t trust.
Now this brings me to two other important concepts which are the concepts of a moral fusion campaign and fusion politics. Both are rooted in the understanding that that we cannot create systemic change until we come together and work together across our different concerns and our different levels of privilege. As Martin Luther King understood the systemic nature of the problems we face mean we cannot resolve one area of major concern without addressing the others. That is racism and sexism and economic discrimination and militarism and the abuse of our planet and the moral narrative that justifies all of them are inextricably linked in such a way that we can’t really address one without addressing them all. Thus while each of us is likely to have one or another of these as our primary areas of concern--unless we embrace each other’s concerns we are not going anywhere. That’s what fusion politics is about. It’s a recognition that while identity politics may be the foundation on which may of us have been organizing, while claiming our base we need to embrace the concerns of others if we are going to be successful in addressing our own concerns.
But for this to work it can’t simply about some political coalition. It’s got to go deeper. That’s the importance of fusion politics and moral fusion. They are about identity and how we see ourselves and each other and whether we will stay fractured and divided by the system of domination along the lines of privilege that it has created. There is no successful movement for social change that doesn’t have to figure out how to bring people together across the levels of privilege that divide us. The Black Movement faced the immense challenge of bring people together across the different ways skin tone had been used to define privilege within the Black community. The Workers movement had to overcome the divisions between more skilled and less skilled and higher paid and lower paid workers. The same challenges faced the Women’s and LGBTQ movements. Even the homeless community in Boston has had to face how it was divided between those who were couch surfers versus those who stayed in shelters, and among those who slept on the street between those who had premium spots to sleep at night versus those who didn’t. We are thus challenged with both recognizing the realities of privilege that divide us and the way they make us distrust each other and figuring out how we can build trust by working together for a more just, equitable and compassionate society for all.
Here it seems important to note that just as history shows us how oppressed peoples will often choose to hold onto some form of privilege over engaging in greater justice for all, which way they choose has everything to do with how they see their options. At this point, even rich people have a stake in our finding a new way of living together because we will not be able to address global warming without simultaneously addressing our extreme social inequality and how we collectively understand who has the right to do what with our commons like the air and the water and the land. This means that if they wake up they will discover they too have real stake in this struggle.
Finally, it’s important to understand Martin Luther King’s vision of the beloved community, the community of those who claimed their belovedness, their worth and their dignity, and who were willing to struggle and sacrifice for the liberation of all—as the antidote to the politics of divide and conquer.
This means that what we are doing together today is not just about addressing issues. It’s about how we relate to one another, whether or not we can listen to one another, whether or not we can honor each other by taking to heart each others’ concerns despite our difference perspectives. Though our gathering today is about clarifying our agenda, it’s even more about building a community, building a movement, committed to pursuing the kinds of systemic changes that we are needing. We won’t be able to build this community, this movement, unless we learn how to honor each other and work together across all our differences. This will not be easy as given what’s at stake and all our differences we can be easily triggered. That means we need to have mercy on each other and ourselves.
Today is going to be chaotic. It would have been great if we had had six months to plan what we are doing today, but we felt we couldn’t wait. This means you’ll undoubtedly encounter many things that could have been done better, but I’m asking you to be as gracious as you can be as we’re all trying our best and we want to make the most of our time together as we work to bring an end to the segregation that defines our lives in this county through building this new moral fusion movement. Thank you!
We are now going to be splitting into working groups focused on some of the areas where we see inequality being perpetuated including: housing, employment and wages, healthcare, education, criminal justice, policing, immigration, and environmental justice.
In these groups you will have an opportunity to very briefly share your ideas for how we can overcome the barriers of discrimination and create a more just redistribution of resources within that area.
Remember, in this moral fusion process it is as important to listen as it is to talk. Maybe more so. Once everyone has presented their ideas, there we will then be a process for prioritizing the idea that most needs immediate action and what other top three priorities for action in that area. We will then tally the results which will be presented after lunch to the larger group so we can begin the work of creating a common agenda that will allow us to work together across our different concerns to create systemic change in Washtenaw County by making each of these concerns the concerns of us all!