A few recent, post-election remarks circulating on the Internet pulled my attention away from more pressing things and found me revisiting some thoughts on the concept of “belonging.” I had been working on a longer piece in which I reflect on the intersections between a person’s “sense of belonging,” as linked to community and place, and the concept of belonging as it tends to play out publicly, with acts of exclusion along gendered and racialized lines.
I’ve abandoned that writing, but these recent statements are just too much. Here’s an example of one that was on a private social networking page:
“The Food Stamp Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is actually proud of the fact it is distributing the greatest amount of free meals and food stamps ever. Meanwhile, the National Park Service, administered by the US Department of the Interior, asks us to ‘Please Do Not Feed the Animals’. Their stated reason for the policy is because the animals will grow dependent on handouts and will not learn to take care of themselves.”
The surface commentary offered here is clearly prompted by conservatives’ hackneyed election-cycle ideas that “big government” offers “welfare handouts” to some “un-needy” (i.e., undeserving) people, which remain unnamed here but are likened to “animals” (fairly typical class and racial coding). And this even amidst all the other racialized diatribe rushing through our Internet tubes, overt and coded, including the absurdity of petitions for secession from the United States after Obama’s reelection. But why I’ve paid attention to these remarks isn’t their racist subtext, which is the same as that underlying most public discourse in the U.S. today, it’s in how these classed and racialized statements of anger function as adjunct to that old dichotomy: us vs. them, self and “other.”
Some of my earlier thinking along these lines was prompted by a visit to Detroit and add another line of commentary here:
As a photographer and all-around great companion, I accompanied my partner on her recent travel-writing assignment to Detroit, where we stopped at D-Town Farms, a project of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) located in River Rouge Park, near where the city’s western edge borders Redford Charter Township.
We wanted to see the two-acres of urban farm, which is in place to address the need for inexpensive, quality foods to help offset the hunger and malnutrition among Detroit’s poor. See the DBCFSN’s definition of food security and its accompanying policy statement to get a greater sense of the important work this organization is doing.
After looking at the gate and the sign about D-Town Farms, we drove off Outer Drive, the road that runs along the western edge of the park, to see more of the operation, driving on a trail in between the farm and a field where it appears trees from the US Forestry Service had been planted.
A man walking two dogs approached us along the trail as we drove back to Outer Drive (one dog was off-leash, which has been troubling for me since being attacked by off-leash dogs in Riverwest, Milwaukee on five separate occasions. I digress, but only somewhat). Before he could say anything I told him we were driving back to the road after taking pictures of the D-Town Farms.
Without any other prompting he simply tells us he doesn’t like “those people”; mostly, he claimed, because they fenced off land on which he’d like to see deer roam.
Then he informed us that we were on “private land.” I merely acknowledged his statement with a quiet “huh,” not willing to be chased off unless he told us it was his private land.
He went on to say that the state owns the land and further that D-Town was being evicted from it. “They don’t own it,” he said. They don’t belong there, in other words.
The state owns this “private land.” In his obsequiousness to what he believes are the dictates of property in a capitalist society the man virtually defines what ought to separate “public land” from private and gives an example all in one simple utterance.
Now, never mind that while the man was at pains to point out to us that we were somehow “trespassing” on public land he was also walking his dogs on the same property – and that he would need to engage in some twisted thought and employ some odd linguistic maneuvers in order to demonstrate how he also wasn’t trespassing – just never mind that. It will only hurt your brain.
The man next begins to say something I know is at the core of places like Redford Charter Township and Dearborn, Mich. (or, closer to home, West Allis and Brookfield, Wis.): “That’s food for people who don’t work. They didn’t earn it, they don’t deserve it …” and his voice trails off as he continues a racist tirade, but only because I begin driving away, as I say a few words of my own out the car window back at him.
The man’s verbalized sentiment is directly linked to historical reasons why people live in places surrounding cities, especially old bastions of industry like Milwaukee and Detroit. For example, early residents of nearby Dearborn were attracted to the city because industrialist Henry Ford, himself a noted racist, promised these workers $5 a day in wages.1 Contributing to the continued “white flight” from Detroit to Dearborn from the ‘40s and extending after the riots of the ‘60s were the overtly racist policies of Orville Hubbard, mayor of Dearborn who actively opposed blacks, following the jobs, moving into the suburb.
But it’s what Michigan State geography professor Joe Darden, in Detroit: Race and Uneven Development, calls “mass racial hysteria of the white working class” that kept Hubbard, and his racist policies, in office for three decades.
It’s believed that the predominately Italian, Polish and Scottish Ford plant workers who continued to vote for Hubbard feared lower property values if they received new black neighbors. This odd rationalization of racialized economic fear (which is of course wholly irrational) is what Hubbard knowingly tapped for his own political gain. But it was made possible because the underlying sense of belonging shared among these workers included with it the sense that others didn’t belong.
The man walking his dogs in River Rouge Park represents a continuation of belonging through exclusion (othering). His private (selfish) enclosure of what is actually a public commons can be seen as motivated by racial hatred but it’s actually organized through a complex of emotions and beliefs founded on his viewpoint (fully social; that is, learned way of looking at things) that some folks simply don’t belong.
This is a much more pernicious attitude as it informs while at the same time is influenced by racist ones. Racialized views of “the other” rely for their continuation on people leaving their racist assumptions unexamined. These may seem difficult to overcome, but examples like Life After Hate’s Arno Michaels demonstrate that it is blind adherence to racist views that maintains them. Within this mindset, self-examination and the continued development of human consciousness are stunted; without it, all people can become more fully human and, left unchecked, we will.
Once racial bias is no longer nurtured but questioned (through others’ example, personal experience, dialogue and education), racialized misunderstandings begin to dissipate. What often remains is an othering attitude, through which people continue the same or similar practices, but often employing different terms.
The man complaining about “big government handouts” draws on a coded racist language but expresses far more than racial hatred (in fact, he doesn’t literally express it at all). But he has engaged in the same angry othering process that would lead to racial hatred, in statement and attitude, and also to the continuation of all such stunted thought.
It’s toward the project of us all reaching our fullest potential, becoming more fully human, that expanded understandings of belonging are necessary.
1 See Ford’s “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” as well as Ford’s other published remarks readily available in libraries and on the internet.