July 31, 2016
There was a lot of lambasting white male privilege at the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association meeting here in Santa Cruz over the last three days. It started with my friend Ricardo dissing the Declaration of Independence as a document asserting the privilege of rich white men. I think he’s right, don’t you know. It’s men who are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Ricardo didn’t mention that Jefferson wanted to put some mild anti-slavery rhetoric in there, but he was overruled by cooler heads who thought that it would be divisive. Planters from the Southern Colonies (of which Jefferson was one, by the way) needed their slaves to plant and pick cotton. So Ricardo was right to notice that the Declaration of Independence is explicitly sexist in not counting women, and implicitly racist by being silent about the enslavement, disenfranchisement and oppression of black farm workers. And there’s that other thing the Declaration is conveniently silent about, which is that the rich white men who gathered to sign Jefferson’s little essay 240 years ago this month were sitting on what the native Americans would have recognized as tribal lands. Whoops! Just another whole domain of oppressions at work there.
Those are the points that set the tone for the whole conference.
So like the cucumber beetles but maybe more so, there’s really nothing funny to talk about here, so I’m just going to straight for jugular. I’m going to reinforce the point that I’ve agreed with all this, and then I’m going to point out that those guys in Philadelphia back in 1776 may have been a bunch of rich white men, but the Declaration of Independence itself comes out of a discourse of resistance. It wasn’t written to affect the oppression of women, blacks or native Americans, not to mention others who have been oppressed as a result of white male privilege. There was plenty of oppression to go around back then, and a good portion of it was directed at groups that still struggle for social justice today. But the DOI was written to resist what was at the time the dominant oppressive power on Earth, the British Sovereign. It was in that respect the paradigm document of decolonialism. “Let’s decolonize,” says Jefferson, and let’s get George Washington to put some teeth behind it. They may have been a rich white guys and slave owners farming on land dispossessed from tribes, but they were putting their rich white guy butts on the line.
So this isn’t a comeback against all the lambasting of white male privilege, and it isn’t even an apology for Jefferson and Washington. It’s really really true that white guys (rich or not) should find a little time every now and then (if not every day) to think about what implicit bias means and try to understand it a little better. One thing us white guys have to do is not take it personal when a keynote speaker tries to fire up a meeting by pointing out that there are rich white guy privileges woven deeply into the fabric of the American way of farming. So I’m going to mention another speaker who saw fit to call attention to those words from the DOI a little more than fifty years ago next month. He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” He didn’t say that to assert male privilege or to justify appropriation of tribal lands, though he failed to mention both of those points.
America has a fine tradition of resisting oppression. Let’s live out that creed.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University