400 Years of Inequality: A Call To Disrupt the Ecology of Inequality

Mindy Fullilove, Professor of Urban Policy and Health at Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, explains why the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown is an important piece of American History.

How do divided societies hurt people?
When we think about a segregated society where people are divided by class and race, even if it’s a stable society, we have problems because the point of segregation is that separate is unequal. It’s set up as separate so that the dominant group can have most of everything and the other people fight over the crumbs. That kind of thing makes the less dominant group fight with each other. Violence increases and kids that could have contributed so much to society are killed. They can’t use the wealth of society to solve their problems. The crucial thing is the denial of resources but also the fact that people just don’t talk to each other and they don’t connect with each other.

Why don’t we teach more often about the harm that divided societies cause?

I think that in America the dominant policy is to teach stuff that makes people think it’s okay to be a divided society. What people are fed is a constant diet of don’t like those people, don’t talk to those people, and don’t hang out with those people. So, why would they teach that those people are good? That’s not what they want us to know.

Let’s talk about urban renewal. In America, we strive for innovation and modernization. Can urban renewal exist without harming people?

Well, it’s possible to revitalize ecosystems in ways that don’t harm people. Urban renewal as I used the term was a specific program that was a massive intervention in the urban ecosystems and really designed to fail. Ecosystems are very delicate things and if we want to really understand the ecosystem we have to move very carefully and we have to have a picture of the complexity of it. So, urban renewal is very simplistic. It says these poor neighborhoods are the cause of the problems so lets bulldoze them, put something better and the problem will be solved without thinking about the people who live there. So, it’s just a simplistic approach to the problem and you can’t intervene in ecosystems in that manner.

How do we acknowledge that poor people matter?

So, this is really in a sense of why we are so involved in this project 400 Years of Inequality because the big idea that came out of slavery is that slavery is horrific. But once we get rid of slavery, what remains is that they justified slavery by creating this myth that some people weren’t people. And as soon as you say somebody’s not a person you can treat them like a cow. This idea that some people aren’t people justifies all kinds of madness. So in a way what we think is that you have to break through that whole concept. All people are created equal.

Is there a specific event or defining moment that inspired “400 Years of Inequality”?

The New School has helped us launch this larger project which you can find on our website at 400yearsofinequality.org. 2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown since the first Africans arrived. The project is to call on the United States to prepare for and observe this anniversary of Jamestown. So, that’s the specific thing that triggered all of this. It’s thinking about the 400th anniversary and saying this is a good piece of history for Americans to pay attention to.

How do we convince people that inequality is still a major issue?

When you read the history there’s plenty of data on inequality and then you can see how it carries forward now. That’s why you have to know the history. We actually haven’t gotten rid of inequality even if Black people don’t have to sit at the back of the bus. There are other problems like accumulating wealth, being able to have integrated schools and job opportunities. Think about it; a whole society put it in the constitution that people were unequal and we never got rid of that. So what’s the work we have to do now?

Should we rewrite the constitution?

You can’t just fix the constitution because it’s everywhere. So how do we fix it? Well I don’t know how we fix it but I know that if you want to fix something you should get people talking about in what ways is it broken. So that’s why I think talking about the history is so important.

Are there any special projects planned to commemorate the Jamestown anniversary in 2019?

2018 is the time to prepare for the 400th anniversary. It’s important for people to get to know some history. So we are recommending three books called “Voice’s of a People’s History”by Howard Zinn, “Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power” which is my father’s story of how he helped to build the people’s power and “The Third Reconstruction” by Reverend Dr. William Barber. So, what we’re doing right now with the support of The New School is recording short videos of people around campus reading excerpts from one of the books and posting them on Facebook. Hopefully The New School community will start to pick this up and begin to disrupt the ecology of inequality. Our hope is that people all across America will begin to do this as well.

What advice do you have for faculty who want to get involved?

We did the curriculum disruption last Fall and about 41 professors participated by starting with what they were talking about in class and then they connected to that. They did very interesting things. So if they were in an art museum they talked about whose paintings were getting in the art museums and whose don’t. I think that’s exciting and it seems to be very fruitful. We’ll be doing another curriculum disruption in the Fall and then observing the anniversary in 2019 so lots to look forward to. Faculty should participate in the Voice’s of a People’s History recordings to disrupt the ecology of inequality. Read an excerpt and post it on Facebook.

Interview conducted by MFA Creative Writing candidate Victoria Richards.

Learn more from Mindy Fullilove in her #RaceInTheUs lecture: