Through the decades of Rural & Migrant Ministry’s existence, we have come to learn the value, and indeed, the absolute necessity, of living and working in the midst of diversity. Our country is complex because its history is filled with myriad personal and cultural experiences. We have learned that we need to surround ourselves in diversity in order to stand a chance of living life to its fullest. Each of us comes with limited experiences, but through our varied journeys, we have developed viewpoints that can contribute to the vitality and hopefulness of our society.
Part of our experience is determined by our race. There can be no doubt that race has impacted the direction and makeup of this country from the very beginning. Our history is filled with racist actions, institutions, structures and policies. Those of us who are white don’t like hearing this, and many in our country try to deny these historical realities. Our history has had an impact on our present society. To deny this is foolish and harmful. To take someone’s land, for example, impacts not only them, but their children, their children’s children, and on and on. Unless there is a remedy, they are always behind. Unless there is repair, there is always an emotional and social divide. And we all pay the price, not only of fear and division, but ultimately, of lost opportunity and the denial of our humanity – all of our humanity.
In its decision against Affirmative Action, the six-member Supreme Court majority has denied both the history of racism and its impact, as well as the visible and invisible perpetuation of racism today. Their wishful thinking is perhaps for something we all wish – a world that has no racism and no impact from historical racism. But that is not reality. Thousands upon thousands of people, and specifically young people, who have been forced to navigate the oppressive structure of racism will find no avenue of acknowledgement that they have had to work harder, overcome more barriers, and suffer more. Nor will they find understanding that those they are “competing” against have enjoyed countless benefits – big and small – throughout their lives that have continually given them support and opened doors that have placed them in a stronger position to gain entrance into college.
I am one of those beneficiaries, having been privileged to be born white. I have been the recipient of many unique benefits, and frankly I am limited in my understanding about just how many benefits I have received. I also have a suspicion that I have more energy, because I have not had to face a daily barrage of micro-aggressions that very well would have whittled me away. But white privilege, by definition, always comes at someone else’s expense.
So where do we find hope? It lies in all of us knowing that we are children of God, and that our humanity, our full humanity, is to be honored. For this to happen, we need one another: All of our races. We need each other as we explore and acknowledge our history, for only in acknowledging that history can we overcome our racism and live into our full humanity. This exploration cannot be led by a mostly white majority Supreme Court, who are deeply limited (as I am) about the realities and impact of a history that we have never truly experienced. For those of us who are white, we must have the humility to acknowledge that there is a lot we don’t know, let alone understand about ourselves, let alone about those who are Black and Brown. This humility will open the door to new possibilities that will enrich us, all of us.
Rural & Migrant Ministry spent more than 20 years fighting against a 400-year history of exploitation of men, women and children working in the fields of New York – a history that had its roots in slavery and its legacy in Jim Crow, and legal exclusion of basic labor rights. During this 20-year campaign, we heard many people bristle at the mention of enslavement and its legacy. They denied the connection between this history and the laws of the time. Nonetheless, the reality was that during this campaign, we had laws that paid different minimum wage levels, denied protection when bargaining collectively and even denied a day of rest. And in the midst of this, many wondered why the farmworkers didn’t just work harder and pick themselves up by their bootstraps to take advantage of all of America’s opportunities.
In 2019, New York State finally acknowledged this historical injustice and gave farmworkers equal rights. I mention this story for several reasons. One is that we in New York owned this injustice and changed it. Second, the change in the law enabled our society to begin to move forward toward repair and equality. For the first time, farmworkers have formed unions and negotiated contracts. And for many of us who worked to bring about change, it has filled our lives with joy and possibility. We don’t have to live in fear and denial in New York because of a legacy of enslavement and racism in our agricultural system; instead, we can move forward in hope. That being said, however, we are not stopping for one moment at RMM and believing all is well and equal, and that there is no harm that still needs to be addressed for those who finally got to the starting line 400 years after others did.
RMM works with hundreds of children from rural, farmworking families – many of them Black and Brown. A good number of them are in our college preparation program. Through the years, we have watched proudly as more than 95 percent of our graduates have gone on to college. It has not been easy, by any stretch of imagination. They have worked hard and kept a deep focus on their vision; as one might say, “They kept their eye on the prize.” But they have faced so, so many barriers. In order to overcome these barriers, which have included racist staff and protocols in their schools, they have turned to RMM for support. We have been able to help them develop skills and confidence to pursue their dreams.
We are only able to support but a tiny handful of children, and we spend hours upon hours trying to raise the funds to do this. What about the millions of children who don’t have access to this consistent support? The countless children who don’t have the resources to develop test-taking skills, who don’t have the language or cultural background to even understand the official tests? We can all help a handful of children, but for the vast majority of children, gaining entrance to college and in turn, succeeding and thriving in college, requires that we bring about change in our government policies. We must elect people who are fearless in acknowledging the legacy of racism in our country and passionately committed to creating opportunities for those who have been hindered by that legacy.