#UnlearningWithCoFED — Racism
What does racism have to do with co-ops?
The third installment of #UnlearningWithCoFed is about racism.
As a reminder, here’s how we define unlearning: a continuous process of questioning what and how we’ve been taught so that we can learn other ways of knowing, doing, and being that serve our collective liberation and help us dismantle all forms of oppression. Through our monthly #UnlearningWithCoFED posts, we’ll be questioning and (un)learning together how co-ops relate to the larger visions of food, racial, economic, gender and climate justice.
RACISM is Race Prejudice + Power (from People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond). At CoFED, we use “racism” interchangeably with “White Supremacy” because the latter more clearly articulates the nature and purpose of racism: a set of interlocking systems designed to maintain specific racialized hierarchies and power dynamics.
So, what does racism have to do with food co-ops?
Just about everything. Whether you’re into food co-ops for the healthy, organic, and local food, a good place to work, an alternative to capitalism, or something else, mission-driven co-ops can’t succeed if we don’t understand and unlearn systemic racism. Racism and White Supremacy are at the root of climate change, capitalism, and corporate control of the food system. If we’re not intentional about practicing anti-racism, our co-ops and the so-called new economy will continue to perpetuate the racism and subsequent economic and environmental destruction of the old economy they were meant to replace.
If success in the old economy is the key to access the New Economy, we will fail. Those are the words of Julius Jones, Co-Director of Worcester Roots, in his article, Co-op Racism is A Recipe for Failure, or White Supremacy.
We invite you to read Jones’ piece and reflect on the following questions:
- What assumptions are embedded in ICA Principle #1: Voluntary and Open Membership? Can co-op membership, by design, be “open” if it requires upfront buy-in or sweat equity? Who is membership “open” to? Whose “voluntary” membership do co-ops encourage or discourage?
- How can ICA Principle #2: Democratic Member Control facilitate or be counterproductive to anti-racism? Who has access to democracy? What is the purpose of democracy?
- Is ICA Principle #3: Member’s Economic Participation equitable? Is it just to ask that all members contribute “equally” to the capital of the cooperative? How does “equal” economic participation account for inequitable distributions of wealth?
Even — or especially — if your co-op doesn’t have an anti-racist agenda, or you don’t see yourself as part of a movement that calls for anti-racist co-op development to end racism and oppression in the food system, we encourage you to (un)learn what you’ve been taught about racism and join the long struggle for racial justice. It’s never too late.
This #UnlearningWithCoFED article was originally sent to our network on the 49th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and 50th Anniversary of MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon in which he denounced the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.” Cesar Chavez Day was just the week before. Chavez was a farm workers’ rights leader and co-founder of what became United Farm Workers. As we practice unlearning, we find King’s and Chavez’s legacies and the ongoing movements for economic justice as racial justice to be instructive.
Reflecting on a very brief history of racism in the food system, particularly with respect to land ownership and agricultural workers, we recognize that justice must be simultaneously rooted in the past, present, and future. A “new” cooperative economy is not possible without addressing the historical and ongoing racism that denies Native, people of color, poor, and immigrant communities sovereignty over the land, their own labor, and other forms of wealth.
Racist barriers to a cooperative economy trace back to the founding of the United States through genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, and war. The creation of this country, by design, was to value White lives above others and by any means necessary transfer massive land wealth into the hands of White landowners. Before contact with colonialists, there were over 600 Native tribes with an estimated 10–12 million people covering 1.5 Billion acres of territory. White European conquest for land then led to hundreds of years of colonial conflict, disease, displacement, and discriminatory policies including forced assimilation and removal of Native children from their families; Native communities continue to resist today.
White Supremacist greed also led White elites to design a global slave trade unlike the world had ever seen to enslave millions of African peoples and exploit their ancestral knowledge in agricultural landscapes and farming systems to generate unthinkable wealth and power. Even when African-Americans were legally able to own land, interlocking systems of racist policies and policing continued to deter and demolish Black land ownership. State-sanctioned violence against Black communities is so effective that today, “Of all private U.S. agricultural land, Whites account for 96 percent of the owners, 97 percent of the value, and 98 percent of the acres… Blacks possess 7.8 million acres “of overall rural land”…[and] Black farmers owned only 1.5 million acres “of farmable land.”
After slavery was “abolished”, it was replaced by the “Coolie trade”. Asian indentured servants were shipped en masse to the U.S. to work as agricultural and domestic workers. And while Asians, specifically Cantonese immigrants, used ancestral knowledge to reclaim 500,000 acres of California swamp into arable land in the 1870s , the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Asian immigration and citizenship from 1882 to 1943. Furthermore, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 excluded Asian immigrant farmworkers from owning agricultural land despite the fact that 9 of 10 workers who built the railroads that allowed California’s agriculture industry to flourish were Chinese.
Fast forward to the state of land ownership and agricultural workers’ rights today and you’ll see that the logic of White Supremacy has remain unchanged. Most farmworkers today are Latinx, primarily poor and indigenous people, who have been disproportionately impacted by colonization, free trade globalization, and imperialism. When they arrive to the U.S. to work in jobs that no other U.S. persons will, they face racist immigration laws designed to exploit their labor while excluding them from the rights and benefits regularly afforded to their White counterparts. For example, Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act were designed from their inception to exclude agricultural and domestic workers — the overwhelming majority of whom are Black, Latinx, and Asian — effectively preventing communities of color from amassing wealth in the food system while they continue to feed and generate wealth for our nation. This includes, of course, having the capital or “voluntary” sweat equity required to join food co-ops that are supposedly “open” to them.
Sound familiar? To be fair, all of the above is just a snapshot of the deeply embedded White Supremacy in the U.S. food system. There’s so much more to unlearn together.
We welcome your thoughts on Julius Jones’ Co-op Racism is A Recipe for Failure, or White Supremacy, our brief history of food system racism, and what all this means for our community at this moment. Feel free to respond directly to this email or share online with the hashtag#UnlearningWithCoFED.
(Editors note: For the purposes of reaching a wider audience, CoFED is transferring this monthly email series to Medium. This content is from an email blast that originally went out at the end of March 2017).