As Cornellians we are called to highest level of intellectual introspection and reflection. One step towards understanding ourselves is realizing that the American society pushes us to establish our identity through “othering”: the act of labeling people as “others” different from ourselves. Our ontology is formed using an “us” versus “them” system. “We” are “us” because “they” are “them.” Through residential segregation we distanced ourselves. Our suburbs emerged through the creation of ghettos. Our peace is defined in relation to the violence that surrounds another place. Our modernity is based on the primitiveness of other’s societies. Our society creates phrases such as, “hashtag first world problems.” Our vision is based upon the other’s blindness. When we scroll down our newsfeeds or turn on the news we tell ourselves, “My situation is bad, but other people have it worse. At least I’m not a *insert racial minority*.” Our equality is based upon the system of inequality that exist abroad. Our selectivity is based on looking at the rejection of others. Our quality of life is based less so on our happiness to the health disparities of other patient populations. Our blessings are based on the degree to which other people’s disadvantage. One example is the way we socialize children with phrases like, “You know you are so blessed to have food! Don’t waste what you have. Not everyone is as privileged as you. Don’t you know there are hungry children in *insert continent*?” Our freedom is based on the subjugation of another. Our problem today is that we establish our security based upon the imprisonment of our convicts. Our innocence is based upon the guilt of others.
So what then is the solution?
We must understand the invisible social contracts we sign into our work everyday of our lives. One step toward this understanding is admitting that the new institution of slavery still continues underneath our very noses. In the present day, slavery has taken on a new face: the criminal. According to the 13th Amendment of our Constitution, if a person is convicted as a criminal in a court of law, that person would go back to being considered a slave. The exact wording of our Constitution reads the following, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
In other words, according to the clause within the 13th Amendment, being convicted of a crime can subjugate you to indentured servitude and even slavery. Put simply, we must frame the issue of imprisonment as slavery. Because how we frame the problem will help us work towards solutions. We can paint a picture with our words about unspeakable injustices against racial groups however, unless we have the right picture frame, that vividly painted picture will remain on the floor. Based on the 13th Amendment, as long as a citizen exhibits good behavior, follows all societal laws, does not make a mistake and does not get convicted of a crime, they are free. However, I find it interesting that in the American news when a member of a racial minority group makes a mistake or commits a minor offense, the first reaction is to demand judgment or justify imprisonment. Although we must demand justice, we must also admit that the problem with the previous statement is the following:
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.
Cornell is currently being confronted on one mistake — investing in the private prison industrial complex. However, there is still time to change. There is time for Cornell to learn about its mistakes and for us to re-educate ourselves. There is still time to teach empathy, a lesson that seems to be lacking in our classrooms. On other words, what we need is a higher education than we have right now. We need an education that equips us to go out in the world and be global shapers, change makers, policy makers, doctors, engineers, critical thinkers and thought leaders. We need an educational curriculum for our global leaders that will enable them to be able to understand social justice and what their role can be in solving the challenges of tomorrow, today. We need the vocabulary to talk about the tensions, the hurt and the suffering we experience within our various communities. We need a diversity requirement for students before they leave Cornell.
The reason for this is evident in the ways in which the American media has us think about our lives in relation to others. Despite this, re-education should not be the responsibility of any one racial minority group or organization on Cornell’s campus. It should be the responsibility of the entire university and all of its students. And if change does not come in time, then we must educate ourselves.
No one at birth possesses the culturally sensitive lexicon and all the vernacular to talk about the complex issues of our day. It is for this reason we must not be quick to brandish or label people as haters, bigots and racists. Yes, it is true that haters, bigots and racists do exist in our society. However, I also believe that there are also good-hearted people who lack the vocabulary to express their true intentions. Great people who cannot help to repeat the words they have heard over the course of their lives. We must not be too quick to demonize them misspeaking or not having knowledge of a world outside of their own socialization and realm of reality. It is correct that our community must hold them to the highest level of introspection. However, we must also learn to be patient with them while they learn and re-educate themselves as well.
Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.
On Dec. 19, 1958 Rabbi Harold Saperstein remarked, “It comes down to this: All mankind are bound together. We are like the limbs of a single body.” In order for us to move forward, each of us who makes up this body must be free. Our idle gaze, our passivity, our spectatorship does nothing to help the victims of discrimination and injustice. Social justice requires more than just for us to sit on the sidelines. If anything it requires our voices, our actions and our words. It requires us to protest at the rallies, champion for freedom, protest the unjust imprisonment of racial minorities, witness from the pulpit and serve as allies. We must testify and write about the injustices around us.
Because in the end, what affects “them” affects “us.”
Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeremiah can be reached at [email protected]. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Fridays this semester.