Structural Violence and a Discrimination Simulation

This year as part of the Disciples Peace Fellowship I received the opportunity to participate in Motown Mission Peace Week in Detroit, Michigan. Before I traveled to Detroit I had many preconceived notions of what it may be like. When people heard I was traveling there I was often told that I needed to be extra careful given the violence of the city. Despite these warnings, I was unprepared for what Detroit would really be like. I had seen poverty before, but never to the extent in Detroit. Many of the buildings I passed had been burned down, or were neglected and covered in graffiti. Building projects had been abandoned, leaving unfinished buildings throughout the city. On many of the houses that we worked on, families had bars on their windows and security doors for their personal safety. Despite all of these challenges, many of the individuals I spoke to were incredibly rich in spirit.
As I drove through Detroit, it struck me how much it looked like cities in Mexico, or other developing nations, as opposed to a city in the United States. This experience truly challenged me to look beyond my personal bubble to see the struggles that are happening all across the country. However, what shocked me the most was the stark contrast between the primarily Anglo suburbs, and the sheer poverty in Detroit, which primarily impacted minority communities.
As a Peace Studies major, one of the topics that we discuss is the issue of Structural Violence, or structural oppression through which individuals are unable to meet their basic needs. Many individuals believe that racism died out in the 1960s following the civil rights movement, but that argument is flawed. While we may not longer have the Jim Crow laws and segregation, violence against minority communities has been built into our structures.
Regarding Detroit, years ago there was a mass exodus primarily by the wealthy Anglo community, to the suburbs. Those who stayed in Detroit were primarily minority groups. Often when people are talking about what is great about being in America is that everyone has a chance. We believe in equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of results. However, equality of opportunity is something that is not seen for inner city youth and workers, particularly those from minority communities. While wealthy suburban communities are able to afford the supplies for schools, hire new teachers, provide better medical care, and increase spending for police and fire departments, many inner city communities struggle for these basic conditions. Infant mortality rates in our inner cities rival those in developing nations across the globe. Generation after generation growing up in these conditions breads a society of individuals where this the norm. It is only through critically studying the conditions around us that we can begin to have a dialogue to create change. What I am urging you to do is to examine the structures that are around you. Do people get a fair shot? Would you want your children to grow up in inner city conditions?
To address this issue, I led a workshop in Florida on discrimination and structural violence called Archie Bunker’s Neighborhood. Conferees were divided into 7 groups and not told which group they were a part of: Caucasian, Latino, African American, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, and Disabled. The Conferees were told that they would participating in a community-building activity, and were given a certain amount of space and resources depending which group they were a part of. The Caucasian Community received the largest space and $75,000, and all other communities received $25,000-$40,000 and a smaller amount of space. Each group would elect one representative, who would fill out necessary paperwork and then go to the Secretary and Building Authority to receive permits for the community. The Secretary and Building Authority (played by counselors) acted in a way that demonstrated discrimination. The Caucasian Group always had their permits granted and were immediately let in to see the Building Authority. The minority communities were often instructed that they needed to redo their paperwork, were subjected to long waits and racist comments, or their permits were denied if the Authority did not agree with their vision. In addition, Counselors played a Sherriff and Deputies, who subjected the minority groups to discriminatory comments, and placed them in jail if they stepped out of line. The simulation went on for 1 hour. At the end, the Caucasian community had managed to build a full community including housing, a hospital, entertainment, and a schooling system. While some of the minority communities did succeed in building housing and occasionally a worship space, there was little progress beyond that.
Many of the youth initially expressed frustration with this activity, particularly those who had participated in the minority communities. However, some of the youth from the Caucasian community spoke about how easy the activity was, and may not have noticed the struggles of the other communities. Following the activity we held a debriefing time where the youth shared these experience and how they related to the real world. The youth spoke about the need to realize that discrimination does exist in our culture still, and that we must become aware of it in order to address it. By becoming aware of the challenges that exist we empower ourselves to the be change we wish to see in the world through positive action.

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