Inequality

A Miracle of Resilience

MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson, was born in 1890 in Camden, S.C., with a different last name from all the other people in her household. Three generations later, we have no idea where the name Johnson came from.

Lizzie grew up working plantation land owned by her grandmother, Lea Ballard. Lea received the land in the wake of the Civil War: We don’t know how or why, though one theory speculates that Lea, who was listed as a 42-year-old mulatto widow on the 1880 U.S. Census, may have been the daughter of her slave owner. He may have given the land to her after the Civil War. We don’t know. We only know that Lea owned it, that she had 17 children who worked that land, according to family lore, and that the city of Camden eventually stole the land from her by the power of eminent domain. This we know from records I hold in my possession.

Lizzie married a railroad man named Charles Jenkins. Lizzie and Charles had three children; Charles later died in a railroad accident. Lizzie had a choice: endure the brutality of the Jim Crow South alone with three kids, or move with the stream of black bodies migrating north. Lizzie migrated to Washington, D.C., and, eventually, to Philadelphia and took her lightest-skinned child with her.

Both mother and child were light enough to pass for white. My caramel-toned, straight-haired grandmother, Willa, and her brother, Charlie, were too dark. So they were left behind in the care of their elderly great-grandmother. Willa and Charlie joined others on the plantation and earned their keep working the fields.

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July 2015
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All Eyes Are Upon Us

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
                           —Marvin Gaye

then they stomped
          John Willet
as he lay on the sidewalk
hands cuffed behind his back
and shot
                      Michael Brown

who was on his way this fall to college

Stop and frisk
Stop and frisk

and used a chokehold to kill

                    Eric Garner

who sold cigarettes one-by-one
on the street in Staten Island
and punched again, again
in the face
great-grandmother

                Marlene Pinnock

as she lay on the ground
then they stood around while
an angry bartender
pushed vet

                William Sager

down the stairs to his death;
maybe helped hide
the security videotape
then it was
unarmed

               Dillon Taylor

in Salt Lake City, and
homeless

              James Boyd

in Albuquerque

and       Darrien Hunt

in Saratoga Springs, Utah—
how about that grandmother
92-year-old

             Kathryn Johnston

shot to death in a SWAT team raid
gone bad?

in ’73 in Dallas

             Santos Rodríguez

was marked by officer Cain
who played Russian Roulette
with the handcuffed 12-year-old
in his cruiser—
till the .357 fired; Santos’ blood
all over his 13-year-old handcuffed
brother David

and those cries of
19-month-old      Bounkham Phonesavanh
in whose crib
the flash-bang grenade exploded

Shelter in place
Shelter in place

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Environmental Racism and Health Disparities in the South Bronx

Photo courtesy Leah Kozak

“An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

Last year on a crisp afternoon in March, I was one of nine people arrested by the NYPD and taken away to the local precinct for processing. My crime? Attempting to plant detoxifying sunflowers on public brownfield land on the South Bronx waterfront in New York City.

Earlier in the day, more than 100 residents, faith leaders, organizations, friends, and allies came together to protest the proposed relocation of the online grocer FreshDirect to a residential neighborhood in the South Bronx. After a jubilant and joyous interfaith reflection and prayer vigil outside the entrance to the waterfront location, security guards refused to let us cross the gate, so we sat in front of it in protest — a peaceful and non violent act of civil disobedience.

Our coalition, South Bronx Unite, works to improve and protect the social, environmental, and economic future of the South Bronx in New York City, located in the poorest congressional district in the country. For three years we have been fighting to stop FreshDirect from receiving more than $100 million in subsidies and incentives to build a diesel trucking distribution center on public land along the Bronx Kill Waterfront.

Pope Francis: 'We Will Not Find the Lord Unless We Truly Accept the Marginalized'

Pope Francis in September, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis in September, giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

In a powerful sermon that signaled his desire to push ahead with historic reforms, Pope Francis on Sunday said the Roman Catholic Church must be open and welcoming, whatever the costs.

He also warned the hierarchy not to be “a closed caste” but to lead in reaching out to all who are rejected by society and the church.

“There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost,” Francis told hundreds of cardinals and bishops arrayed before him in St. Peter’s Basilica at a Mass centered on the story of Jesus healing a leper rather than rejecting him.

“Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking,” the pope said as he outlined the current debate in the church between those seen as doctrinal legalists and those, like Francis, who want a more pastoral approach.

“Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences,” Francis declared. “For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family. And this is scandalous to some people!”

What Can We Expect from Pope Francis' Address to Congress?

Pope Francis in October in St. Peter's Square. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.

Pope Francis in October in St. Peter's Square. giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

The Francis Revolution is crossing the Atlantic and coming to the heart of the nation’s Capitol. News broke yesterday that Pope Francis has accepted Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a rare joint session of Congress during his upcoming trip to the United States on Sept. 24.

This is the first time that a pope has addressed Congress and provides a world-class opportunity for the Holy Father to lift up the Gospel’s social justice message to the most powerful legislative body in the world.

So what will the Jesuit from Argentina talk about? Studying his nearly two-year tenure as the Bishop of Rome suggests that Pope Francis will focus particularly on the scandal of inequality and exclusion.

Last April, Pope Francis tweeted that “inequality is the root of all social evil.” The seven-word tweet caused an uproar in American media, but the truth is that Francis had been saying the same thing for years. In his 2013 letter Joy of the Gospel, Francis wrote “just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

With reports last fall suggesting that economic inequality in the United States is at its highest levels since the Great Depression, Pope Francis will likely call on our elected leaders to transform our economy into one where no one is left behind.

State of the Union and Inequality: What Are You Going to Do Now?

durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.

The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."

Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.

#BlackLivesMatter: Why We Need to Stop Replying ALL LIVES MATTER

There’s this microaggression happening online, offline, and all around that has a nice sentiment, but really needs to stop. Can we call for a week-long moratorium on decrying “ALL LIVES MATTER?”

This is a request specifically for my white brothers and sisters, especially those in the church.

I, of course, as a white heterosexual married middle-class highly educated American male, believe that all lives matter. It’s something I’ve been fighting for my entire adult life. Whether it is the mother infected with HIV by her wayward husband in western Africa, whether it is the undocumented immigrant father who may be separated from his American-born children, whether it is the NRA card-carrying white uncle who does an honest job and is a good neighbor back in the midwest, whether it is the homeless thirty-something woman coming off a bad meth addiction but needing shelter during a difficult winter, of course, by all means, every life matters.

Your life matters. My life matters. All lives matter.

This is a non-negotiable. This is true. This is what it means to be made in the image of God, as we’re told in the Book of Genesis — everyone, whether you’re white, black, brown, male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, transgender, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, nice, kind of a jerk, young, old, middle-aged, we all matter.

But these past couple weeks — these past four months, five months, 22 months? — it’s important that we stand with the ever-growing chorus and declare, yes, black lives matter. With the heartbreaking, soul-wrenching death of Michael Brown, the news just yesterday of another non-indictment in the death Eric Garner, or the dark night when Trayvon Martin was shot down in Florida, a chorus of voices has risen to declare with one voice and hashtag that #BLACKLIVESMATTER.

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