WHY WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD
ED: This is a speech to the Cambridge School of Weston delivered on March 16, 2000. I was invited to make the speech by the school's Diversity Committee. As I explain in my speech, however, I do not agree with "diversity" as a concept. The speech received a standing ovation.
I'd like to thank the Diversity Committee for the invitation to speak here today. I want to talk with you about why I think it is possible for us to make revolutionary change in the world.
I wanted to begin these remarks by talking with you about a series of experiences that changed my life. The experiences began in Dorchester, a white, blue collar Irish Catholic section of Boston in 1974. Then it occurred to me that none of you was born in 1974, and maybe none of you had much idea of what had gone on in 1974 and 1975, the first years of busing in Boston. (Raise your hand if you were alive in 1974. Raise your hand if you think you know anything about the battle over busing in Boston.)
My wife and I and two small children moved into Dorchester in 1974, the first year of busing. Our neighborhood, called St. Mark's, had been the center of the anti-busing movement outside South Boston. The school year began with terrible conflict. School buses carrying black children were being stoned in South Boston, and there was racial conflict in many parts of the city. Our daughter was just beginning kindergarten at the Patrick O'Hearn School in Dorchester.
The principal of three small elementary schools called a meeting of parents to organize Home and School Associations–the equivalent of PTAs–at the schools. He set up the meeting at the Adams Street Library, deep in the heart of the white section of Dorchester. There were about 45 parents there, all of them white. As the meeting began, the principal made a snide comment clearly directed at the missing black parents, saying, "Well, I guess we can see which parents really care about their children." Immediately 8 white parents–not me; I was new to the neighborhood and was keeping my head down–jumped up and told the principal, "Of course the black parents aren't here. They're afraid to come to this part of the city. You should have held the meeting in neutral territory where everyone could feel safe."
I admit I was pretty surprised by their reactions. I was an ex-college professor and was also a Marxist at the time. With my academic and leftist background, I had fully expected these Irish Catholic parents to be very anti-black.
What happened next was even more surprising to me. The principal then talked about conditions at the three schools. The Patrick O'Hearn, he said, was being ruined by the new kids–the black children. The school was built only to hold 280 students, but 80 more had been bussed in, so that the gym was converted to four "open-space classrooms." This time even more parents objected, saying that it wasn't the black children's fault that the school was overcrowded. It was the fault of the federal Court and the political big shots who had designed the busing plan.
This meeting began my political education away from the stereotypes I had in my mind about white working people and toward something very different. It also began changing my understanding of what busing in Boston was all about.
In the next couple of months nine other white parents from that meeting and ten black parents got together and formed an organization which we called Better Education Together (BET). We said that we felt as parents that we were trapped between two bad alternatives. On the one hand, the Boston School Committee had delivered an inferior and segregated education to all our children for years. On the other hand the Federal Court was making the situation worse. It closed down 34 schools in the black neighborhoods in the first year of busing, it was breaking up the relationships between parents and schools and parents and teachers that give ordinary people some degree of political power in the schools, and it was making the issue in the schools not education but race. We said that the issue in the schools was not race but education. We felt that we as parents had the same hopes and dreams for our children and the same fears, and that nobody was going to fight for our kids but us.
So we held coffees in each others' living rooms, where black and white parents had a chance to talk about their feelings about our children and find out how much we had in common. We wrote up literature with the pictures of four black and four white parents on it, explaining why they were part of Better Education Together, and we went to every neighborhood in the city–to white South Boston and black Roxbury, to different sections of Dorchester, to Brighton and Allston and Hyde Park. Everywhere we went, people would come up to us, some of them with tears in their eyes, and say, "Oh, I'm so glad to see this. I thought nobody felt this way but me."
Better Education Together continued for two years. We didn't win any great victories–for example, the federal Court refused to let us become parties to the desegregation case–but we had a big impact on the debate over busing in the city. For years white and black politicians and the media had made the question, "Are you for or against forced busing?" and had successfully kept people completely divided. We were able to bring together black and white parents around our common goals and common values: our belief in our children and commitment to their success, and our belief that ordinary people can and must depend on each other, no matter what the color of our skin. In the summer of 1975, there were hundreds of parents from white South Boston and black Roxbury and elsewhere who went together to the Boston School Committee to demand smaller class sizes. On two occasions we ran the School Committee out of the room and took over their chambers to have a real parent discussion about education.
How did these experiences change my life? I had spent several years while a professor actively involved in opposing the Vietnam War; in fact my involvement in the anti-war movement had cost me my job. But when American participation in the war ended, the movement--which should have continued to try to make fundamental change in American society--collapsed. At about the same time I became disenchanted with Marxism. Communism, it was clear, was just as undemocratic as capitalism and not a desirable alternative. So, like a lot of other people at the time, I was in despair that it was possible to change the world. But my two years active experience with the black and white working people of Boston convinced me that ordinary people are much better than the institutions that affect them–the Church, the schools, the media, the politicians. My experiences of the working people of Boston gave me hope that we can change the world.
Now what does all this have to do with Diversity, and what does it have to do with you?
Let's try to take a long view, for a minute, of the world that you will graduate into in a few years. As you know, it's a world that is becoming more and more unequal. For example, in 1980 the average executive's pay was about 19 times that of the average worker; by 1997 it was 419 times. In the last 20 years working people have produced fabulous amounts of wealth, but most of that wealth has gone to the top 1% of people in our society, who now own four times the wealth they had in 1977, while the bottom fifth of the population have actually gotten 10% poorer in these years. Average workers' wages are no better than they were in 1973. At the same time, people are much more insecure, many being forced to work two or even three temp jobs or low-pay jobs to keep their families afloat. We have rampant homelessness in the wealthiest country in history. The U.S. imprisons more of its population–now over 2 million–than any other society in the world. Governments in many states are imposing "high stakes tests"–such as MCAS in Massachusetts–tests which are designed to fail, as a way of legitimizing a two-tier society, in which most people are without money or power in a profoundly undemocratic society.
Now I'm sure that you've heard these statistics before. It's not a secret that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, even during this, the longest economic boom in U.S. history.
How do the wealthy elite at the top reinforce their hold on society? Well, they have a lot of different ways to do this, but two of the most fundamental elite strategies, I think, are competition and isolation. By competition, I mean that they set individuals or groups against each other by disguising what people have in common. For example, this is what they did during the Boston busing crisis: they pitted white and black parents against each other so that neither would get better schools and both could be controlled. Better Education Together was able to step into that fight though and focus on what we had in common. We said that the real fight was not white against black but ordinary people against the elite–the politicians and media and corporate leaders who were behind it all. In this way we built a united movement.
The other elite weapon, isolation, is related to competition. This is something we all experience. By isolation I mean the fact that all the messages we receive from the normal sources–the media, political and corporate leaders, the movies we watch, the books we read, the classes we take in school–these are dominated by the corporate outlook that tells you that fundamental change in our society is impossible because "Nobody really feels this way but you." They tell you that, if you are upset at the direction of our society, that's your problem. You're all alone, and you might as well give up. You might have very strong feelings that this society should be different. You might believe in real equality. You might wish that our society was truly democratic, and that instead of trying to beat out each other for the right job or the right grade or the right school placement, we should be working together to make this a better world for everyone. But you're encouraged to keep these feelings to yourself, because "Nobody feels this way but you." You begin to doubt yourself. You think, "Maybe I am crazy to think things could be different." So you keep your mouth shut. You have been isolated.
What does "Diversity" have to do with this? Many good people support the "diversity" concept, because they see it as a way of building unity and respect for each other across cultural divides. But diversity is about "celebrating and respecting our differences." Despite many people's best intentions, it's not really about finding what we have in common, but about focusing on differences as if these supposed differences are what define us as human beings. Diversity as a framework, as a way of thinking about each other, will always stand in the way of the goal that most of us share, of multi-racial, multi-ethnic unity.
Diversity in fact is no different from the basic capitalist view that society consists of various groups competing for their own interests. Such a view does not present any threat to capitalism or to inequality but reinforces it. It reinforces it in two ways. First, it makes us think that "the enemy" is not the elite at the top of society, but some other group -- say, white people or black people or men or women; "social change" in this view consists just of making inequality more perfectly unequal -- I mean, not getting rid of inequality itself but insuring that every group gets a piece of the action. Second, it increases our sense of isolation and powerlessness. It makes us feel that we, or the members of our supposed group, are all alone, cut off in our struggle from the rest of humanity.
There is only one kind of movement capable of challenging elite power over our society and creating a truly democratic and caring society, and that is a movement which unites ordinary men and women of every race and nationality, black and white and brown and Asian: a movement based not on our differences but on the fundamental values of solidarity and equality which we share. Such a movement would cut through the surface differences to see each other not as the problem but as the solution to creating a better world.
You are all thoughtful young people, I am sure, and this means that each of you is on a quest. You are trying to figure out who you are and what your role is in the world. What should you do? Try to get rich? Keep your head down and try to get by? Try to change the world? Probably you're all thinking all these thoughts simultaneously, trying them out.
Is there any hope in the world? Is there any basis for you to have faith in other people, so that, when you do think thoughts about changing the world, you don't feel all alone? Let me leave you with the basic insight that was the outcome of my two years' involvement in the Boston busing battle.
We know that capitalism is the most dynamic social system in history. We know also that the fundamental dynamic of capitalism is the principle of competition, the idea of dog-eat-dog. The logic of capitalism is that this world should be a loveless and savage place: we should each be trying to screw each other all the time. But we can look around and see that this isn't true. We can see that most people, in the little piece of the world that we think we can control–which might just be with our friends or our classmates, or our wife or husband or students or colleagues–that in this little piece of the world most people try to create relationships the opposite of capitalism. They try to create relations based on love and trust and mutual respect and commitment. We may often not get very far in our efforts–capitalism is a very powerful culture hostile to equal and committed relationships–but to the extent that we have any committed and loving relationships in our lives, we have created them by a struggle against capitalist culture.
This means, I think, that most people are already engaged in a struggle to change the world. You are, your friends are, your parents are, your teachers are. Most people are already involved in a fight against capitalism. None of us are alone in our struggle, and we can succeed if we build on this great, shared human longing for a better world where we're all equal and all depend on each other.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, July-October 2000.
Other Articles by Dave Stratman