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Joanna Colwell: There's no racial justice in tax bill

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Posted on December 28, 2017 |
By Joanna Colwell



Walking in Middlebury today, I started wondering about how the Republican tax bill would affect my life. How much will our health care premiums go up? Will our self-employed family even be able to afford insurance? How are we going to pay for college? I feel worried about the future, and at the same time I am aware that every one of these challenges is way more difficult if you are a Black person in America.

This is because Black Americans have been systematically excluded from the paths toward prosperity that many white families have accessed for generations. In my own family, my first year of college was funded by a small inheritance when my paternal grandmother died. The house in San Francisco where I grew up, and where my parents still live, was purchased with help from my maternal grandparents.

When my father’s mother was a small child, her family traveled from Russia through Poland seeking freedom from poverty and oppressive laws. It’s hard for me to even imagine what her early childhood was like. I’m pretty sure the first three years of her life were spent moving from place to place, before finally boarding the ship that would bring her, along with her sister and parents, to Ellis Island in America. Like the 2 million other Jewish people who emigrated to America from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924, my grandmother faced obstacles like not being able to speak English, but by the end of her life she was an English teacher and a published poet.

Just as today’s U.S. population contains a lot of people who think we should stop allowing people to immigrate here, in the early 1920s many citizens and politicians (including Vermont Republican Sen. William P. Dillingham) sought to put immigration quotas in place, strictly limiting who would be allowed to build a new life here. It appears that my grandmother and her family barely squeaked in, since they arrived in 1926, and the Immigration Act, which was primarily aimed at restricting the immigration of Italians, Slavs and Eastern European Jews, passed in 1924.

Now unlike some other American Jews, my family has never been particularly good at amassing wealth. In addition to our one lawyer and one doctor, I count two college professors, an air conditioning repair expert, and a lot of teachers, writers, artists and musicians. But most of my family members own their home, or live in a rent-stabilized apartment in New York City. No one is at risk of becoming homeless.

At the same time as the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe were occurring, another mass migration was taking place. Black Americans who lived in the Southern states, with their brutal Jim Crow laws, were fleeing to the north. As Isabel Wilkerson writes in her epic study, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” these migrants were refugees from violent political persecution. Although they arrived in the north with full United States citizenship, and speaking the common language, Black Southerners faced many of the same barriers to success that immigrants from other countries did. They too were forced into overcrowded and often unsanitary neighborhoods. They too worked the worst jobs, were often exploited by their bosses, and frequently were overcharged for the necessities of life.

So how is it that in just two generations, my family has come from arriving at Ellis Island, suitcase in hand, to a comfortable, middle class life, while so many Black families, even those with college educations and/or working several jobs, are still renting and still at risk of eviction? The Boston Globe’s famous Spotlight Team is doing a series of articles on whether Boston deserves its racist reputation. In their study of wealth disparities the reporters found that while the household median net worth for white people in Boston is $247,500, for Blacks it is $8. No, that is not a typo. $8.

In a nutshell, while it is certainly true that anti-Jewish ideology still exists in the U.S. (see swastikas on Havurah House; see Charlottesville), in general Jewish people, once they learned English and assimilated into American culture have been allowed entry into the nebulous construct called “Being White.” For Black Americans, that door is barred. No level of education, no professional attainment, not even reaching the highest office in the land will grant you freedom from being thought of as less than human by a certain segment of white America. But even putting aside that most whites do NOT harbor animosity toward folks with darker skin tones, the fact remains that the society as a whole is aggressively hostile to people of color. By every measure, be it health care, education, infant mortality, police brutality, or housing, things are more difficult if you are Black.

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that if more white Americans understood deeply (I mean not just the data, but really letting it into their hearts) that we all want the same things for our families, the election of 2016 would have gone very differently. We all want to feed our kids nourishing food and send them to good schools. We all want to be able to see a doctor (who will treat us with dignity and respect!) when we are ill. We want to live in a safe neighborhood. Everyone deserves these things, whether their ancestors are Native American, first-, second- or third-generation Americans, or Americans who are descendants of enslaved people. We should all be in solidarity with one another. A tiny sliver of the citizenry wants to hoard most of the resources for themselves, at the expense of everyone else. Unfortunately that tiny sliver controls the government right now. But the moment the rest of us get our act together and realize how intertwined our destinies are, the 1 percent is going to have to share, just like most of us learned to do in kindergarten, and we can get busy building the America we want to live in.

Joanna Colwell is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who founded and directs Otter Creek Yoga, in Middlebury’s Marble Works, and lives with her family in East Middlebury. When not practicing or teaching yoga, Joanna enjoys taking walks, cooking, serving on the board of WomenSafe, and working with the Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Feedback welcome at: [email protected]

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