At a recent event for progressive community organizers here in San Diego, someone in the room lamented that we live in such a conservative town. The guest speaker — an African-American, the daughter of Civil Rights activists, now living in the San Francisco Bay Area — said this in response: “Progressive movements aren’t usually born from progressive places. Usually they are born from places marked by great injustice. You all here on the border ought to think of yourselves as living in the Deep South before the rise of the Civil Rights movement.”

This statement struck me as provocative, in the best sense of the word — it provoked me to think! 

Born and raised in San Diego, I have struggled throughout my life with the U.S.-Mexico border. I know the border has 150 years of history behind it, and I know the nation-state is the most basic building block of today’s international order. Still, I find myself rebelling on simple humanitarian grounds against what Spanish speakers in our region call la linea (“the line”). I cannot reconcile my basic sense of fairness with the fact that children born on one side of the line have such dramatically different prospects for wealth and well-being than children born on the other side.

Of course it’s easy for me to think — as do most San Diegans — that the border is a “given,” that it is in some sense “natural” that the world should be organized this way. But when I don’t allow myself this easy way of thinking, I conclude that this institutional arrangement is not “natural” or “right” or “good” or “fair.” And this causes me to wonder if my friend from the Bay Area was right.

Is it possible that we, who live in San Diego, have become accommodated to the institutionalized injustice of the border in a way similar to that in which so many people in the Deep South became accommodated to the institutionalized injustice of segregation?

Before you dismiss the comparison as far-fetched, here’s a mental exercise for you. First, try asking yourself questions like these about the people who lived in the segregated South: “How did they put up with it for so long? Why did they tolerate it? How did they reconcile it with their basic common sense of right and wrong?” Those questions seem obvious enough, don’t they?

Now try this: Can you imagine a future world in which people will look back on the history of the U.S.-Mexico border and ask the same questions about us?

I look forward to discussing these and other issues here today on behalf of the Foundation for Change, as well as at our salon-style conversation on Thursday, January 31, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Urban Solace, 3823 30th Street, San Diego, CA 92104 (North Park).


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