RAYGINE DIAQUOI FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
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The events in Charlottesville have had repercussions all over the nation, forcing debate about the meaning behind many of our well-known monuments and the importance of removing statues that do not reflect our greatest ideals. In focusing on more obvious testaments to oppression, we must not neglect to examine the way that everyday structures, such as a grocery store, can reflect injustice.
Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 18 members of a commission that would," develop guidelines on how the City should address monuments seen as oppressive and inconsistent with the values of New York City." I hope that the individuals called to be a part of this commission that will guide our treatment of "symbols of hate" will use this opportunity to bring attention to all of our shrines to injustice, even supermarkets.
I am a native New Yorker and have lived in three of our wonderful city's five boroughs. Recently, I moved from a lower-income zip code with a median income of $26,410 to a higher income one, median income $46,210. As soon as the movers brought the last of the boxes into the apartment, I went to the neighborhood supermarket to grab some quick items to eat.
Realizing that my new main grocery store shared the same name as the one in the old neighborhood, I knew that this would be an interesting exercise in comparison given the differences in demographics. In addition to having a higher median income, my new neighborhood was 21.6 percent white. The old community was 2.4 percent white.
Physicians, psychologists and health economists have documented the relationship between neighborhood demographics and the likelihood that one has access to healthy food options. The higher the income and the whiter the neighborhood, the better the chances are of not having to rely on bodegas, convenience stores and fast-food restaurants for nourishment.
I had gotten used to traveling for about 30 to 40 minutes, and relying on a friend's food co-op membership to find fresh organic produce, milk alternatives, canned goods without added sugar and bread without high fructose corn syrup.
When I walked through the doors of the supermarket I probably looked just like Charlie Bucket did after being told that he had won Mr. Wonka's chocolate factory. I had moved from a food desert to a food wetland. This store was significantly larger than the one in my old neighborhood and had aisle after aisle of organic and locally grown produce, several different kinds of hemp milk, drinkable yogurt from Sweden, bread made from sprouted whole grains and cleaning products derived from biodegradable resources; a cornucopia of healthy food choices that was unimaginable in my previous community. I couldn't believe that these two very different supermarkets belonged to the same chain. But, then again, it was very easy to understand why there were such dramatic differences in food offerings from two stores belonging to the same chain.
I stood in front of four different types of hemp milk for a very long time reflecting on how every single aspect of the way we choose to configure our communities reflects our values and who is valued. Our grocery stores, along with other establishments and institutions, in lower income neighborhoods and/or those inhabited predominantly by people of color, are a few of the monuments all over our nation that we are ignoring in the sudden scramble to topple statues. The supermarket in my previous community, through its blatantly substandard offerings served the same purpose as many of the statues that are being taken down. It institutionalized a general narrative about the inferiority of certain members of our population that persists in our society.
As a scholar who has spent the last decade researching the strategies used by communities to help their children thrive despite oppression, I am acutely aware of the havoc that these kinds of environmental affronts wreak on actual people. In the wake of Charlottesville's reminder of the long record of white supremacy in this nation, we are paying more attention to what our statues tell us about who we are.
Raygine DiAquoi is an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and director of the Office of Diversity, Culture and Inclusion at Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. She is a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.