Cycles of Oppression: The Upward Spiral of Chaos

Cycles of Oppression: The Upward Spiral of Chaos

Much of last Friday morning and afternoon I spent cooking and cleaning house. To celebrate the last week of class I invited my students to enjoy a home cooked meal and the shade of my backyard on a beautiful summer’s day. Though it would have been easier to order the same food items as takeout from Chipotle, I’m not about that it. Grilled chicken, beef and vegetables, tortillas, fresh mango salsa, cilantro rice and vegan pinto beans was the least I could do to reward all the hard work these young people put in to study and learn the intricate details of a very complicated topic.

“It’s really not at all what I expected,” said Trevor, the one man among my five students. “I thought we were just going to learn about diversity in the outdoors. I had no idea we’d cover so much history.”

My course, Outdoors For All, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Nelson Institute For Environmental Studies, is a special topics class that delves deeply into the racial disparities that separate those who spend time in nature and those who do not. The central focus of my 2014 book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors”, this divide typically reveals itself as an apparent under-representation of people of color in the fields of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. Over the last four weeks my students and I explored the long history of so-called minorities and the roles they have played not only in the creation of our modern adventure culture but in the defense and preservation of civil liberties, basic freedoms that are at the core of American democracy.

Some might imagine from its description in the course catalog that this class only is about the value of black and brown folks going camping. But Outdoors For All is an ongoing discussion of the repeated efforts of the powerful to deprive marginalized communities of their right to pursue happiness over the last 500 years. Through the lens of history my students have gained a better understanding of how we got to where we are today by knowing more about where we came from. The disparities of access to nature in the present are deeply rooted in the atrocities of past. Until we reconcile the imbalances of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, both stolen and deprived, we may never see the rift that divides us come fully closed. Only then can we repair the damage that has been done.

Inspired by a conversation I had in 2017 with National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, my students explore her understanding of American history. She describes our journey as a nation through time as “an upward spiral, cyclical periods of chaos”. At the age of 96 Ranger Soskins has observed a repeating pattern of tragedy and triumph that is marked by a gradual expansion of civil rights for marginalized members of our community. But those advancements are typically followed by a sudden contraction of liberties that results in a systematic targeting of those least able to defend themselves.

For example, at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the decisive engagement of the American Revolution, between 10 and 15 percent of the Continental Army was made up of black men. They served throughout the war fighting for our national freedom. Despite their contributions, however, many of these brave soldiers and their families were forced back into slavery. Under similar circumstances during the Civil War black men fought for their country only to be forced into a system of indentured servitude as sharecroppers or contract prison laborers. After World War I returning veterans were subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow era and the doctrine of “separate but equal”. In the years immediately following World War II many black men who fought in a still segregated army came back from overseas to be denied the benefits of low interest home loans and free college tuition under the G.I. Bill. Without two of the primary vehicles for creating inter-generational wealth and social mobility in the 20th century an entire generation of black men and women were deprived of their opportunity to pursue “the American Dream”.

The upward spiral of chaos is a pattern of oppression that continually repeats itself as we refuse to learn from the errors of our past. The discriminatory practice of redlining, which restricted where people of color in the U.S. could purchase homes, go to school, work and play continued as a legal practice through the 1960s and as a social convention right up through the middle of the Regan Admission in the 1980s. The inability to buy homes in the newly emerging suburbs of North America had a profound social impact people of color. They were effectively segregated into exclusively urban communities and restricted from venturing freely into natural settings such as our national parks, forests, lakefronts, rivers and beaches. Even public pools in many areas around the country were deemed “for whites only”.

Social mobility was made inaccessible. Intergenerational wealth was limited with few opportunities for economic growth or stability. This ultimately results into far less disposable and leisure time to pursue interests such as travel. Add to all of this the persistent threat of racially motivated mistreatment or even violence and then starts to grow a widening divid between those who spend time in the outdoors and those who do not. Here begins the Adventure Gap.

As we ascend higher and higher along the spiral of chaos we forget the atrocities of the past. Without this vital memory we lose track of the root causes of conflicts and disagreements in the present. Today, for example, the footwear brand Nike is taking grief for recalling a style of athletic shoes featuring an American flag with a field of 13 stars arranged in a circle to represent the 13 original colonies that became the United States. If we recall our own history, it should come as no surprise that those who remember the treatment of black people immediately following the American Revolution would take offense at this symbol. Known as the Betsy Ross Flag, named for the woman who designed it, this banner reflects and affirms a time in our past during which those who fought for our freedom were returned to bondage. In recent years that flag has been used a symbol to those who ascribe to a philosophy of white nationalism and white supremacy.

“Under the guise of ‘heritage,’ symbols of early U.S. history have long been adopted by hate groups set on returning to a time when all non-white people were viewed as subhuman and un-American,” says Keegan Hankes, research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “Historically, these symbols have been used by white supremacists, both to hearken back to a time when black people were enslaved, while also painting themselves as the inheritors of the ‘true’ American tradition.”

Today those stars in a circle ironically seem to represent the cycle of history repeating itself. Though we should certainly acknowledge and revere the sacrifices and the struggles of our patriotic heritage, we must remember what happened next.

Over the last 243 years in this country since the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, the cycle of oppression continued. Through my course at the UW Madison I have tried to frame the historical context of racism that is relevant to current affairs. Even now black men and women are disproportionately and repeatedly mistreated, abused and even killed by police officers for even minor infractions of the law. The ever ascending upward spiral of chaos winds another lap around our history. As NFL quarterback and social activist Colin Kaepernick suggests in his protests of the National Anthem, perhaps we can stop for a moment, take a knee and remember. If we truly intend to break the cycle we must first acknowledge the atrocities of the past, embrace the full measure and consequences of our history, learn from our mistakes and aspire to do better. We can all do better.