Among the many nerves BET’s final season debut of “Being Mary Jane” struck was the idea that America’s growing brown population is poised to usurp any gains the black population has accumulated through the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and, now, #blacklivesmatter.
TV anchor Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) is recovering from a face-disfiguring traffic accident. The strong-willed black woman is worried her CNN-like network will use her temporary absence as a pretext to replace her, though her agent and producer assure her all is well. When a pretty, young, inexperienced Latina is hired to substitute, Mary Jane comes to realize she needs to show her face at work — however it may look — and make her power and presence known so no one gets any ideas she’s easily replaced.
The crabs-in-a-barrel mentality this scenario evokes says a lot about how marginalized groups can be pitted against one another when they face the same issues — access to opportunity. It underscores many of the issues faced by those trying to fight poverty in the United States and globally, because it is precisely these social constructs that distract communities of interests impacted by the same events from working together to achieve a common goal.
During a recent convening of the Opportunity Collaboration in Ixtapa, Mexico, more than 400 funders, activists, policy makers and thought-leaders, including myself, examined barriers to addressing poverty around the world. While poverty is not the same in Chicago as it is in Guatemala City, Damascus, New Delhi, Nairobi, Berlin, orHong Kong there are several commonalities transcending place, spaces and institutions that weave its victims into a common mosaic of economic suppression.
Regardless of locale, the powerful and privileged tend to exploit social constructs as repressive tools that benefit a wealthy few over an impoverished many:
In the United States, a construct of race is exploited to justify skewing access and opportunity toward whites versus other racial minorities.
In Latin America, economies, driven by pressure from the global marketplace and political corruption, punish the rural poor by exploiting the social construct of class.
In India, the social construct of caste is used to create barriers to jobs and fair business practices to maintain economic success for all classes.