Janet and I took a lovely trip to Richmond, VA last week, mainly to celebrate her “victory lap” in her crisis pregnancy work and to then see the area a bit.
On Friday we visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s large plantation estate. Jefferson owned 140 slaves, which he inherited and kept. He said that slavery was abhorrent but never could see how to unwind it… meaning no doubt that he couldn’t see how the southern states—or his own indebted plantation—could survive economically without cheap Black labor. How difficult it always is, I sighed, for those who benefit from inequality to envision a more just solution…because it would be costly to their own interests.
Afterwards we ducked into a nearby hilltop apple farm and winery just before it closed. The only other customers remaining in the tasting room were an Anglo couple our age just down from New York to start their holiday weekend adventure in the area.
After a moment of pleasantries shuffleboarded up and down the bar-top like so many mugs of beer in an old Western movie, the man asked us with curious empathy, “So how is it, living in California?” When I took a deep breath and blinked as though my brain just turned on its warning flashers, he explained further, “I mean… with all the immigration problems you have there and everything?”
I think he was bracing himself for woe begotten tales of swarming masses of dark-skinned, dark-eyed invaders, breaking down barricades, rushing up from the border, ravaging the womenfolk and looting and pillaging what rightfully belongs to us white settlers, by God.
When I didn’t give him quite what he was looking for, an answer on which he could pour out Conservative compassion or at least East Coast condescension, he tried again. “The entire drive down from New York, all we heard on the radio was about the defeated California ballot initiatives and your immigration problems; which of course we ALL face.”
I suppose I should have thanked him for giving me a chance to correct my initial reply, but I guess that didn’t come to mind. “Get a life—or at least a CD player” was about all I could think of, and that didn’t seem helpful.
I did tell him that the California economy has become largely dependent on hard-working immigrant laborers; and then I quickly commented on the lovely mountains outside and went out on the patio.
Here we were, probably still on Thomas Jefferson’s 5000 acres, he a man who said slavery was abhorrent but never could figure how to end it. And there I was, espousing appreciation of Latino immigrants. With what praiseworthy attribute? That they provide cheap labor to keep our economy going.
Once outside, I wanted simultaneously to forget about the dialog inside, simply enjoying the fading light on the smoky mountains distant, and at the same time to be frustrated about the encounter. This guy’s comments smelled of the same scent of historic classism that surrounded us on our trip, which ran through the beginnings of the New World (a Williamsburg epitaph: “She was a woman admired by all the classes”) through America’s Founding Fathers (many of whom were slave owners and guaranteed that “right” in the Constitution), to the silky-slick KKK robe and head-shroud ominously confronting me at the Richmond Museum a block from the Confederate White House.
Let’s face it, this is always about protecting our way of life, protecting our privilege from those who do not share in it. Because it is undeniable that others cannot share our privilege without it costing us something. Jefferson couldn’t get past the economic cost of abolishing what he called a heinous institution, though of course the cost actually paid to abolish slavery by force was astronomically higher for everyone involved.
Most people would be in favor of equality, of justice, if there were no reciprocal cost on those who have gained from the inequality, from the injustice. And that would be me. Frankly, I’m certain this is at least part of the reason I cringe inside when I hear the word “justice”.
On Jefferson’s wall hung a then-current map showing Mexico’s border extending all the way north to Canada. Today that same land, with all the resources it possesses, “belong” to the USA.
So I passively participate in this geographic game of “winners and losers”, and as the current victors we must protect our interests from the vanquished, and from all other huddled masses.
Therefore I live in a gated community, as do all my fellow Americans. It’s called the US-Mexico border, and the gates are currently being made stronger, the walls higher, the urgency heightened. The same is done to dams when the inequality between water levels grows greater and threatens to break the barriers. Or in prisons when deplorable conditions cause the inmates to rise up. Rather than relieve the pressure, we strengthen the barricades.
So yes, it is difficult living in southern California, being this close to the dam, seeing the leaks in it, the pressure points in the system of separate-and-unequal we continue to perpetuate and benefit from, to accept it like our forefathers as an unfortunate but unsolvable “given”.
Meantime, I sit here on comparative Easy Street, a mere cipher of Jefferson, and like the great man I honestly can’t imagine how we could unwind the inequality that exists in my own day, in my own town, while it’s still in our power to do so peacefully…possibly because all the options seem to involve too much sacrifice on my part. May others lead us where we do not want to go yet history shows us we must. Before it’s too late.
And until that happens—maybe even to speed its coming and diminish own my fear—I’m committed to easing that pressure against the dam, reaching over the wall, maybe even dislodging a brick or two in the process. The less pressure there is, the less threatening it all seems, and the more creative we might yet become. I’ve heard it said that “God is not a God of charity, but of justice.”* If that’s true, and I think Scripture bears that out, I want to open my mind and heart to God’s agenda, as difficult and scary as that might seem from my privileged perch.