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  • Karl Thunemann

The Conundrum of Social Justice

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

A few days after George Floyd was murdered, my co-administrator suggested I write an epistle on social justice. Although I had followed the protests closely, I felt this subject was out of my realm. But instead I answered, Oh, sure, thus opening the door to a series of remarkable synchronicities.

Searching the internet “blogs about social justice” brought a comprehensive response on the first screen. The writer, a faculty member at Hampshire College, laid out the comprehensive program she had created for students at this private liberal arts college. Not just meditating and reading, but meetings for “Community Mindfulness Meditations” to address such questions as recognizing and confronting racist tropes that lurk in the subconscious mind. She relies heavily on the Thich Nhat Hanh poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names,” which speaks to the issue that we are all in this together.

This pyramid breaks out racist ideas and actions to help us spot these tendencies in ourselves. It is circulated by

These groups set forth a vision that older people could use to explore the inner reaches of their own and each other’s thought patterns and behavior, that space where social justice is either denied or takes root.

Now, I am not claiming that finding a relevant article on the internet is synchronistic. Shouldn’t it happen all the time? The call for me is that one of my daughters-in-law, who has great interest in social justice, graduated from Hampshire College. So, in this minor way, I was drawn into this idea.

Later, I decided to check out the author and find out if she still was at Hampshire. Something about the blog suggested it was not completely current. I searched her name, Susal Stebbins Collins, and found an obituary. She died in 2016, at age 58. The obituary suggested a life at the forefront of social justice. (Links to both her article on social justice and her obituary are at the end of this post.)  Even in death, still a person to be reckoned with.

That night, my wife suggested we watch Crip Camp, the great new documentary film that follows the awakening of demands for social justice among people with disabilities It starts with “crip camp,” a remarkable summer program  founded during the early 1950s in New York that essentially invited disabled kids to explore their true selves. The film follows these students into adulthood, where many of them made their way west to Berkeley—already a hotbed of activity on behalf of civil rights for disabled people.

Here again, synchronicity struck, for I too was at UC Berkeley then. I am roughly a peer of the “crip camp” corps, but I did not meet them in Berkeley. I did not even look up Ed Roberts, just glimpsed in the film, a renowned organizer for the disabled in Berkeley, even if he was a protégé of one of my favorite junior college teachers. I just couldn’t go there.

I did not want to be seen with these activists with whom I had so much in common. I never went to “crip camp,” but as a child I was an outpatient at the county school for the disabled, where I went for physical therapy on my cerebral palsy. I dreaded the idea of being identified with those children who attended the school fulltime. I wanted to be seen as normal, not disabled. This state lasted until I was 28!

Anyway, I moved to Washington State and no longer had to hide out from these frightening contemporaries. The film follows them through their dogged campaign for civil rights, starting with the Carter administration in 1977 and culminating in the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Now that they have prevailed, I no longer seek shelter behind the label of normal.

As time and events have taken their toll on me, I give thanks to these champions every time I look for a curb cut, use an automatic door, ride an elevator in a public building or use parking reserved for disabled drivers. And have they fully triumphed? I guess they would argue that further improvement is needed.

Watching Crip Camp, which was produced by Michele and Barack Obama, impressed me that the persistence and strategic thinking employed by the kids from “Crip Camp” could be modified and used by people of color (and their allies!) to press their demand that the police state remove its knee from their necks. The film is being streamed on Netflix.

There need be no conundrum here for meditators. The work starts with us as individuals, and it spreads to the community and throughout the nation. It is not either/or.

Oppressed minorities—indeed, we all—cannot afford to think this thing will be settled with the conviction of the police officers who killed George Floyd. That would be a landmark, but still only part of the beginning.  A campaign of constant vigilance will be required. It will take the small meeting groups favored by the group Indivisible to help participants monitor themselves and keep up the pressure to eradicate racists tropes that still abound.

Pressure will be required for action in the halls of Congress, in the councils of future administrations, in state capitals, in every great city and in the tiniest communities across the land—and in the minds and hearts of all who regard themselves as Americans.

I am not saying that disabled people and oppressed people are the same. They have common concerns, and they can learn from and cooperate with each other. I think that fear drives bigotry toward both groups, but the fear is nuanced.

I doubt that most able-bodied people believe that disabled people will attack them. No, it is their mere presence that is upsetting. They are a perpetual reminder that normalcy is not the great castle that it seems to those who enjoy its protection. Some disabilities are inherited, but most develop by chance. People who believe they are not afflicted want the disabled to go away, to be out of sight. But that is no longer the way it works.

Bigotry based on race or ethnic identity does include a substantial component of physical fear. It is particularly felt toward black people. This fear may be tangled up with guilt for country’s history of slavery and entrenched institutional bias. It is not rational, and we must stop making allowances for it.

Perhaps the United States would benefit from a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The idea, set forth in South Africa in 1994, has prompted more than 40 countries to try something like it. Would this idea work here?  We need an official context to ensure that our elected officials and national institutions continue identifying and tending to work needed to protect equal rights and justice. It will take a long time.

For myself, as a meditator I say may I be involved in this process, as far more than an anguished observer wringing his hands. 

Those links concerning Susal Stebbins Collins:

The blog

The obituary


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