What parenthood can teach us about social justice
On Tuesday, April 20, 2021, George Floyd’s murderer was found guilty by a jury of his peers on all three counts: second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, while being arrested on the suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd’s murderer is Derek Chauvin, a white police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, who was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Immobilized on the pavement by Derek Chauvin, bleeding from his nose, begging to be allowed to breathe, George Floyd was heard calling for his mother, “Mama!… Mama, I’m through!”
I was driving to pick up my son from daycare, listening to my local NPR station when the Judge read the verdict a few minutes after 4p.m. Central Time. I remember the stretch of highway my car crossed during the time it took for the entire verdict to be uttered. I remember the dry asphalt, the cloudy Oklahoma skies, the license plate of the Murano in front, boasting “Native America.” I remember the feeling in my stomach, the emotions, the ache because I knew that a verdict alone won’t stop systemic racism and police brutality in the United States, just as Chauvin’s trial did not stop other police officers from killing Daunte Wright, or Andrew Brown, or Adam Toledo who was only 13.
I remember considering how all authoritarian regimes occasionally punish one of their own in order to absolve themselves of certain guilt, just as the period of Communism in my native Romania has taught many of us. For example, both Lucrețiu Pătrășcanu and Ana Pauker had been crucial in the establishment of Communism in Romania but were also framed as scapegoats and purged by rivals within the Party*. Although I wanted to believe that Chauvin’s verdict represents something more than a simple gesture or an attempt at restoring order in the status quo, I simply couldn’t.
Despite my incredulity at the ability of a guilty verdict to affect lasting change in terms of racial and social justice, the next day I witnessed an event, in Oklahoma City, OK this time, that was going to reassure me to some degree that change is possible.
On Wednesday, April 21, 2021, a 6,800-square-foot grocery store was officially opened on the east side of Oklahoma City, OK, offering affordable and community sustained produce and grocery items, and employing local community members. The Market at Eastpoint represents an attempt to solve serious issues of food access, equity, and racial justice in an area classified as a “food desert” in Oklahoma City.
When I first heard the phrase “food desert,” I felt thoroughly uncomfortable, but I couldn’t articulate why. After some research, I realized that a more transparent term would be “food apartheid” as the Food Empowerment Project and many activists call it. Modeled after a British coinage, the phrase “food desert” was defined in 2012 by the Unites States Department of Agriculture as “[a] low-income [tract] in which a substantial number or proportion of the population has low access to supermarkets or large grocery stores. Low-income tracts are characterized by either a poverty rate equal to or greater than 20 percent, or a median family income that is 80 percent or less of the metropolitan area’s median family income (for tracts in metropolitan areas) or the statewide median family income (for tracts in nonmetropolitan areas).”
The American solution of eradicating “food deserts” by locating grocery stores within these designated areas has been proven not to work because the big culprits are poverty and discrimination. Sustainable food movements tend to be predominantly white, and farm subsidies typically go to white farmers. Rather than addressing only the immediate access to fresh food options, we should also address economic inequality and systemic racism in the food system and beyond. And one of the first steps in doing so is to use language in transparent ways (aka “food apartheid”).
The creators of The Market at Eastpoint (RestoreOKC, foundations, churches, Black Lives Matter, and the city of Oklahoma City) are both well aware of and poised to address racism and inequality which lay at the roots of the phenomenon of food apartheid. The profoundly inspiring Oklahoma City Councilwoman and Vice-Mayor Nikki Nice argued that “just how we have seen how our justice system can work yesterday,”—referring to the conviction of George Floyd’s murderer—”we can also see how justice can be possible with food access today and tomorrow and the next day. So today we eat, but tomorrow we fight another day to make sure other communities have access.”
Efforts like this suggest that racial justice reforms must expand throughout all areas of life, and not just in the ways we police. While much needed, it’s not enough to train our police forces to respond with fairness in ways that deescalate conflict or to shift funds away from the police towards social services. Rather, concerted efforts towards racial justice must focus on the ways in which people live their daily existence and ensure they do so with dignity. And that’s what efforts like The Market on Eastpoint do.
In the summer of 2020, then former Vice-President Joe Biden promised he would address institutional racism within his first 100 days in the Office. Indeed, as soon as he took office in January, 2021, President Biden signed four executive actions that address racial justice and equity: the first addresses discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; the second proposes consolidating tribal relations; the third undoes an anti-housing discrimination rule that Trump had reversed; and the fourth ends the use of private prisons.
The President also interpreted the verdict delivered in Chauvin’s case as “basic accountability,” as he referred to the killing of George Floyd as “murder in full light of day, and [the trial] ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see.” Legislators in 16 states have introduced police reform legislation aimed at improving police oversight and accountability. Many police officers are being investigated or let go. But this is not enough because, if change for justice does not permeate all systems, the Market at Eastpoint or the verdict in the trial of George Floyd’s murderer become simple moments in time.
Here is the bottom line: I have a son who looks very white on most days. Our family is beyond privileged with health, steady income, high education, and many more. Despite our immigrant stories and heavy accents, the three of us (my husband, our son, and I) are white people in the U.S. But the women who love my son and raise him every single day for 8 hours have sons who look a lot more like George Floyd. When George Floyd called out “Mama,” he summoned all of us: mothers, fathers, parents, caretakers, nurturers, social workers, activists, and legislators. He called all of us who care because we all have the responsibility to use our privilege to affect change for those who don’t have any. Our sons also call for “Mama” every time they are afraid or hurt. And for them, so far, we have been lucky to be there, to answer back, “It’s all right, I’m here. Mama’s here.”