NPR had an interesting segment on the history of white bread in America, interviewing the author of the new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of food politics at Whitman College. In his book he traces the history of our bread choices, reporting the ways in which politics and industrialization intersect as we choose which bread we eat. Some of these are actually embedded deeply in racism. The NPR post on the segment concludes:
Food reformers could learn a thing or two from these decades-long bread battles. Bobrow-Strain says focusing on individual food choices creates divisive in-groups and out-groups, defined by who makes the supposedly “right” food choices. And activists often overlook the root causes of problems in the food system.
In his 1986 book The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, Langdon Winner makes a compelling connection between technical change and political power. For instance, in this chapter Technical Arrangments and Social Order he includes the example of bridge height over the park ways on Long Island, New York. These were intentionally made lower than the standards, sometimes as low as nine feet, to assure buses did not travel on those parkways. He specifically wanted to make sure that automobile-owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes (his terms) would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting while keeping the 12 foot tall buses typically used by poor people and blacks off the roads.
In his TED Talk entitled “We need to talk about an injustice” this morning, Bryan Stevenson points out that we have not gone through a process of truth and reconciliation as a nation yet with regards to our sordid past of oppression. For instance, he points out how unconscionable it would be if Germany still had the death penalty given their past, especially if a disproportionate number of those executed were Jewish. And yet, in the old South, the felon is 11% more likely to be put to death if the victim is white than if they are black, and is 22% more likely to be put to death if the defendant is black than if they are white. This happens because we haven’t gone back to deal with the messy, difficult history of our nation. We want to move on to the good, the positive, and ignore the difficult as someone else’s problem, or as something that can be solved through doing good moving forward.
Stevenson goes on to say that what is at risk is our identity as a nation. Ultimately, though, what is good is marred by these difficult things that we must first deal with. What we do with our mind is not disconnected from what we do with our heart.
“There is no disconnect around technology and design that will allow us to be fully human until we pay attention to suffering … to poverty … to exclusion … to unfairness … to injustice.”
Watch the talk. Then step back and take a look at the good things you are doing and begin a dialog, start doing research, challenge yourself to get at the truth and begin a process of reconciliation, for too much of even what is good around us is marred by historic injustices. We will not overcome inequality, whether food, infrastructural, technological, economic, criminal justice, educational, or any other, until we recognize and deal with this history.
About 16 minutes into his talk, Stevenson points out that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, it is justice. Our programs won’t be effective until we each discover and implement this reality.