November 06, 2017

We can’t end hunger without confronting racism

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This week “This is Hunger,” MAZON’s traveling multimedia exhibit exploring who is hungry in America and why, is stopping in Charlottesville, VA. The interactive installation features stories of everyday people  seniors, children and former middle-class families struggling with hunger – and is meant to raise awareness, challenge our beliefs and remind us that hunger can afflict any of us. But the arrival of “This is Hunger” in Charlottesville also gives us an opportunity to stop and reflect on the specific and pervasive role of racism on the issue of hunger.

As Charlottesville and the rest of our country continue to grapple with the aftermath of the violent “Unite the Right” rally, we are reminded that racism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism are alive and well, and remain a profound problem in our country. As horrible as the events surrounding that rally were, we also know that racism goes beyond individual acts of bigotry or concerns about civil war statues. It infects the lives of people of color through beliefs, policies and institutions that limit opportunity, allow discrimination, and perpetuate inequalities. And as anti-hunger advocates, we must confront the reality that we can't ignore race when addressing the issue of food security.

Race has always played a defining role in our food system and in the politics of hunger. The American food system was based on racialized policies and institutions – from the land stolen from Native communities, to the institution of slavery and plantation agriculture, and the exploitation of farmworkers of color. And when we look at who is most negatively impacted by the food system today, we find that it is disproportionately people of color.

Take obesity, where African Americans experience the highest rates, more than 35%, with Native Americans following at 30%. Or consider food security, where about 10% of African American and 10% of Latino families experience food insecurity, three times the rate of white households. And if we examine who is most likely to live in food deserts and we find that only 8% of Blacks live in a census tract with a supermarket, compared to 31% of whites. Even worse, almost every Indian reservation in this country is considered a food desert. Finally, we can’t ignore the fact that most jobs in the food supply chain (including planting, harvesting, processing, packing, transporting, cooking, serving and selling food) are disproportionately occupied by workers of color who are paid poverty wages.

But these racialized outcomes and disparities within our food system aren’t haphazard. Too often, they are created and perpetuated over time, by legislation, policies and practices that don’t take racial equity into consideration. Systemic racism is baked into our political response to poverty. In order to dismantle this system, we must begin by countering the stereotypes that allow regressive policies to be enacted in the name of fighting hunger and poverty. For decades, lawmakers have using racial and gender stereotypes to wage war against the poor and the programs they rely on:

  • In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan crusaded against “welfare queens” supposedly cheating taxpayers and taking advantage of government programs;
  • In the 1990s, Clinton signed welfare reform and ended welfare as we know it, while using racially-coded language about helping families held back by a “culture of poverty”;
  • During the Obama administration, conservatives lambasted him for being the “food stamp president” falsely claiming that SNAP went to undeserving recipients who used their benefits to buy steak or lobster;
  • And House Speaker Paul Ryan is notorious for claiming programs like SNAP resemble “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

These false narratives are derived from longstanding racial stereotypes. And the message is obvious, fallacious and dangerous: Government coddles nonwhite “takers” who don’t need or deserve the help. We’ve seen how this kind of narrative can fuel feelings of grievance among whites who turn out at rallies chanting racist slogans and blaming people of color for taking away their jobs, rights, benefits, and way of life.

This harmful rhetoric also sets the terms for policy debates on hunger and can lead to policies that at best ignore, and at worst maintain, perpetuate or reinforce the status quo of racism and racialized outcomes we see throughout our food system. Take for example, the myth that SNAP recipients are more likely to be drug users. In 1996, Congress enacted a lifetime ban on SNAP eligibility for people with felony drug convictions. With the war on drugs disproportionately impacting African Americans and other minorities, it’s no accident that African Americans were disproportionately affected by the SNAP drug felon ban. Or take the more recent drive to enact stricter work requirements for SNAP recipients, which feeds into preconceived notions about poor people and stereotypes about blacks and other minorities being lazy and irresponsible. A race-related motivation for such policies is never explicitly stated. But we need to be just as outraged by policies whose impact may not be made visible by the light of a tiki torch, but which are just as pernicious in sustaining racialized outcomes and limiting opportunities for poor people of color.

Organizations with a mission to end food insecurity must consider how racism impacts the lives of those most affected by hunger, and how charitable and government programs and policies may be complicit in maintaining the status quo. In order to build a more equitable food system, anti-hunger advocates need to make structural racism more visible, challenge implicit biases that distort the public’s and policymakers’ perception of poor people of color, and work to change the institutions, policies and structures that create privilege and disadvantages in our food system and our society. As Charlottesville visitors to the “This is Hunger” exhibit learn more about the realities of hunger and are inspired to act, let’s use this moment to recommit ourselves to dismantling racism and building a fair and just food system that provides for the health and well-being of everyone.