Thursday, May 12, 2011


The headlong stream is termed violent
But the river bed hemming it in is
Termed violent by no one.
The storm that bends the birch trees
Is held to be violent
But how about the storm
That bends the backs of the roadworkers?

Bertolt Brecht, “On Violence”

Brecht’s poem is a wonderful metaphor for understanding the concept of structural oppression. The image of a riverbed actually being more responsible for the speed and danger of the river than the water itself is a call for a paradigm shift in how we address the structures of oppression. Today I would like to explore a possible commons view of a way to begin to deconstruct structural racism.

Those of us who post on this blog use the concept originally put forward by David Bollier of “rough social equity” as the end goal of our commons work. This concept leads immediately to issues of poverty, income inequality, corporate power, tax justice and so on. We have looked at any number of economic models for addressing economic inequity. Economic inequity cannot be separated from racism since it is so abundantly clear that all forms of economic injustice disproportionately affect people of color. (See Tuesday’s blog post about ColorLines, which is consistently one of the clearest and most articulate publications on this topic.)

However, it is also clear that ending economic injustice will not, de facto, end racism. So it is worth spending time to try think about a commons view of racism separate from economic oppression. “Rough social equity” calls for a transformation of the structures of way inhabitants of a society view each other. In 1923, the theologian, Martin Buber, wrote a book called “I and Thou”, one of the most important books of the last two centuries. He said that human beings can adopt one of two attitudes towards the world: either “I-It” or “I-Thou.” “I-Thou” is a relationship between a subject and a subject, and “I-It” a relationship between a subject and an object. “I-Thou” relationships are characterized by dialogue between entities with no outcome in mind except genuine encounter and understanding. “I-It” is a utilitarian relationship, where the goal is to get what one needs from another. Buber was clear that “I-Thou” or “I-It” relationships were not just about one person in relationship to another, but could describe all manner of structural relationships, such as employers and employees, or countries (he was utterly opposed to any form of nationalism for example), or the attitude of religious traditions to each other. To my memory, Buber did not address racism in great detail, although he wrote extensively about anti-Semitism and later about Arab/Israeli relations, both of which have elements of racism.

“I-Thou” requires that two beings (which could be two races) meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. An authentic “I-Thou” meeting lacks any structure, and can be understood by some of the ways his German writing has been translated into English: encounter, dialogue, mutuality.

The "I-It" relationship is the opposite of “I-Thou.” In the “I-It” relationship, the “I” treats other people as objects to be used and experienced. Essentially, this form of objectivity relates to the world in terms of the self – how can an object (which could be a person, a group of people or even a state) serve my/our interest? No one can stay in a permanent “I-Thou” relationship and Buber does not judge “I-It” as necessarily being bad, but the objectification of the other can and often does lead to oppression.

Those who love Buber will probably feel critical at how I have summarized his very profound teaching, and I suggest that anyone who hasn’t read Buber go out and do so, but do so in a book group or a study group so that a genuine “I-Thou” encounter might actually happen as you work with these ideas.

Others will probably wonder what this philosophy means for our day to day lives in deconstructing racism. A commons view often suggests ways of thinking that are exactly the opposite of what we have learned and take for granted. To deconstruct racism will require first making sure that no race is seen as “it”, either to be liberated or oppressed by “I.” The stream bed in the opening line must disappear altogether, at least temporarily, for us to be able to imagine a structure that does not breed inequity. Sometimes just sitting with an idea is the commons approach to finding a solution. As we explore more specific and practical ways to deconstruct racism in our society, we must start with the premise of no structure at all, or risk replacing one oppression with another.

I believe Buber helps us understand a commons view of structural racism. Rough social equity requires us to identify, and then remove, all that causes any group of people to be seen as “it.”

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