Chester: Histories of Privilege and Opportunities of Wisdom

Chester is a place we have little wisdom of. We project. We perform. We claim to know. The majority just does not know. Swarthmore is a particular place; there is a robust concentration of knowledge from the academy, from meta abstracts and theoretical frameworks. But there is not wisdom, the deep, intuitive nature of understanding that comes from a sustained involvement and experience with something. 

Our protest and activism is noble. I, myself, identify in this demographic of advocates and activists. But few of us really investigate privilege. Yes, I said that word. The buzz word that is thrown around to demonstrate how aware we are of the critical intersections of identity and power. The discussion of privilege here is one of theory. You say it. You may scream it. Write it in a poem. Use it in a class discussion. Yet we very rarely activate it. Reckoning with privilege should raise concerns and obligation for sacrifice. The preservation of the self that is in direct benefit of privilege can no longer consciously accept their position without some acceptance of their direct harm to their disadvantaged counterparts. This relationship between the privileged and the unprivileged is the basis of the relationship between Swarthmore and Chester. 

My understanding of my own privilege is a self-examination of the histories I embody, the advantages I am given, and the disadvantages I must attempt to overcome. That actualization is not only a personal examination, but of giving, offering, sacrificing what I do have to those who do not. An attempt to offer the advantages I have to shift the histories that have predated me. In my sacrifice, I think little of how unfair it is that I have acquired some privilege, and think more of the reality of the unprivileged.

I encourage you to self-examine as you read. 

Since I have been at Swarthmore and have engaged in conversations about economic and environmental injustice, Chester has always come up as the foremost local example of these systems. Consequently, my perception of Chester included immense poverty and structural violence. I found statistics and news stories to substantiate these claims: Chester is home to  the largest incinerator in the country, a majority of citizens live under the poverty line, a majority are Black, there is gun violence, the lowest education rates in the state, toxicity, violence, danger, a place you do not want to live.  

My perception of this place was largely theoretical. I had read these statistics, heard these stories, and gathered my experiences from individuals who had never even been there.  

In the theory of these single narratives is the perpetuation of Chester’s marginalization and a passive engagement in the advocacy around illuminating their issues. If we exist in the statistics, we do not have to confront the interpersonal, generational histories of oppression that we are directly involved in. 

Our trash is burned in the country’s largest incinerator. We are amongst the many contributing to the air pollution that is attacking every organ of the Black folks living there. Swarthmore is killing Chester. You are killing Black folks. Our involvement in this murder is invisible for us and silent for them. No, you are not choosing to do this. You are probably not even aware of where your trash goes. Most are not. But now you do know. 

As in any structure of oppression, we are not opting to engage in harm. But our passive participation leaves us equally as culpable. This is a conversation of race, power, class, environmental injustice, and where you fit in all of that. 

We are empowering the utility of the Covanta Incinerator, the largest in the country, to continue to profit with no direct restitution or acknowledgment of its pollution of Chester. The Chester City Council is making decisions to continue the permits that allow Covanta to operate, stealing ten years in life expectancy compared to Swarthmore, and that affect the prosperity of every resident of Chester in the past, now, and in the future. 

White people are the norm, the basis of how our society is constructed, the dominant, the powerful, the control. Throughout a history of colonization, murder, violence, domination, power, institutionalization, and supremacy, we can observe a perfection of these phenomena.  In this specific context of the plight of Chester, much of it is due to inaction and action of the dominant white structure. Industrialization created the rise of the city of Chester in the early to mid twentieth century. It is important to note that industry, a prevalent form of capitalism, in this country is directly intertwined with racial oppression; so deeply muddled, I would go as far to say there is no capitalism and de facto social mobility without the presence or the permission of whiteness. With time, the incentive to live within urban areas was reduced by the overwhelming presence of Black people and the fear of Blackness. 

Therefore, the housing and zoning laws forced Black people of all classes, even the middle or relative upper class, to live in undesirable conditions despite the accumulation of their wealth and the objective, non-racial, ability to purchase the necessary means for a desegregated life. Additionally, the slow but gradual appeal of Black people to seek “rights,” the Civil Rights Movement, was an advocacy to be included into the dominant white socioeconomic and political system. In their pursuit of inclusion, they had to appeal to whiteness. The integration of society, despite the resilience, sacrifice, and perseverance of Black people, was granted by the allowance of whites for Black people to have mobility out of the disinvested communities that white people had subjected Black people to live in. Moreover, these changes or “progress” was at the temporality and comfort of whites in granting Black people the ability to move more freely throughout society, insofar as whiteness allowed.  

Even where white people are not present — Chester is less than 20% white — in the decisions white forebears made in constructing the city, leaving, disinvesting, disempowering, and now ignoring, there is a sinister intentionality that rids any question of coincidence. Theory would require me to present the metrics and data (Eurocentric methodologies of validation and legitimacy) to prove this. Wisdom can observe, discern, and understand the relation of the outcomes of environmental health, race, and class in a larger relation to power — who has it, how it is employed, and to what means is it used. 

If you find yourself disagreeing with me, then it is first important to recognize why. As you are absorbing this information, consider what you are protecting and what utility your protection offers. These statements will lead you to understand the desire of comfort, in association to maintaining power or the ability to not be concerned with that which is uncomfortable. Lastly, if I am wrong then surely one could defend that the incinerator could easily be placed four miles north in Swarthmore.

So, I say this to the readers. Sunrise, where in the idea of the hypothetical Green New Deal are you implementing and are defending the tenets of climate justice and action in a place in dire need? Swarthmore Administration, your zero waste programming should pride itself not solely on diversion (because trash is still being burned), but on investment and restitution to Chester. Swarthmore students, your newly acquired knowledge should provoke you to the wisdom of action. Our collective concern for the detriment of the issues of the outside world is valid. But we must also share a similar, if not deeper concern and outrage for our own backyard and the waste that is creating harm. 

I return to self-examination to understand the weight of our silent, invisible murder. There is absolutely nothing but circumstance of cosmic, spiritual, or coincidental occurrence that separates my destiny to that of the same nineteen-year-old Black person from Chester. In this awareness, I must accept that there is no coincidence that my upbringing in Portland and the upbringing of that same nineteen-year-old Black boy, allows me to sit as a passive observer of these differences, exulting them in the publication of an institution fueling the very injustice I am critiquing. 

Now that we agree that much of these problems are not of our individual choice, we can decide what we will do. The aforementioned presentation of the systems continuing the environmental injustice exists with another narrative of wisdom. That is the danger of being aware: once you are, you no longer are not. I have chosen to position myself in a sub-ecosystem of concerned students, faculty, administrators, and Chester citizens who choose to act. An organizing body, the Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C4) is organizing to build these connections and offer opportunities to support the needs of Chester residents. But we cannot be the only ones. We need the same galvanizing energy of other campus concerns to transform this theoretical anger into the direct wisdom of change. 

You are responsible for what you use and who has to deal with it. 

We are in service not only to ourselves, but to the ways in which we choose to and are forced to interact with one another. I implore you to move your knowledge to action.

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