Last week, Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law School came to my college to speak about race and class in America. Her lecture was based on her book The Miner’s Canary: Rethinking Race and Power in which she sets up an analogy between miners’ use or canaries in toxic environment and marginalized people in American society.
Decades ago, miners used to take canaries down to their tunnel to alert them if the air became too toxic. Because of their weak respiratory systems, canaries would begin to gasp for air and that was a sign for the miners to leave. Guinier applied to warning system to American society. She drew a parallel between communities of color and the canaries since economic and societal issues tend to effect them first and more intensely. She stated that society must pay attention to the issues facing people of color because they affect everyone.
America’s racial problem came to light within the past week as the Trayvon Martin, a name is which is comparable to Emmett Till, entered the news and media circuit. This story was a reminder that violence against the black community is not only a reoccurring theme in American society, but one that can still be deemed “legal.” The reaction to this injustice shows the degree to which the black community can organize, mobilize and demand answers.
Trayvon’s murder made me think about what it means to be black in America today. Does it mean to be a target? A stereotype? A disposable body? To have no value?
As you think that through, consider this:
A black person is twice as likely to live in an air where air pollution is a health risk than a white person.
A black person is five times more likely than a white person to live within near a power plant or a chemical facility.
By 2010, poverty rates in the black community were at 27% compared to the white community which was at 9%.
Black males are incarcerated at a rate six times greater than white males.
With these facts and figures, it becomes clear that the institutional forces that continue to sustain this society must be addressed. Bell hooks writes in killing rage: Ending Racism, “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” Social justice needs to be this dual process, addressing the structural as well as the personal.
Furthermore, this can no longer be just reactionary. We must ask what laws are in place that target specific people? Who are the police officers and politicians in local areas and are they accountable to all their constituants? These campaigns around issues of equality should engage other communities because injustice in the black community is a warning sign of a failing society.
Professor Guinier stated that unlike the miners who leave the mines when they are inhabitable, American society must change its environment to make sure that all of its members can not only survive, but thrive. When a young man is killed on the streets because of the color of his skin and a portion of the population feels more than its share of economic, environmental and societal strain, this affects everyone.