In December 1955, an African American woman named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. She was subsequently convicted of a criminal offence and fined. A lawsuit was filed which led to the US supreme court ruling that any such segregation was unlawful.
But that is history. In 21st century Britain discrimination, the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people has been outlawed and made illegal. It is recognised (by the vast majority) both legally and morally that treating people differently because of a particular characteristic is wrong. We now more or less universally recognise civil rights that protect individuals’ freedom from infringement and guarantee them equal participation in the life of society without discrimination or repression. Or do we?
Enshrined in law is a list of so called “protected characteristics” which includes: age, gender reassignment, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or on maternity leave, disability race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. This exhaustive list is intended to protect everyone from discrimination. Yet I have recently come to the conclusion that one glaring omission from this list of protected characteristics is poverty.
We are seeking to remedy inequalities in order to protect people from all forms of unfair disadvantage. And yet we fail to recognise that poverty is an unfair disadvantage that can cripple an individual’s access to opportunities. We fail to recognise the way in which this affects our mind-sets and attitude towards people who have been dealt with a bad hand in life.
Satirical TV reporter Jonathan Pie says this:
“We are encouraged to see homeless people as if they have somehow failed themselves. It is their fault they have not worked hard enough.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIRht6O7sCQ)
When we see a rough sleeper who smells of alcohol, we assume that he is sleeping rough because of his alcoholism. You and I deal often with our stress by having a drink. Yet we would deny the same right to an individual whose trauma is 100 times that what we have to face, simply because of their tragic circumstances. That there is discrimination in its purest form. We think and treat people differently because of their poverty.
Maybe this is simply a form of self-protection. Maybe we walk by rough sleepers and scoff because we don’t want to acknowledge that if circumstances were different the roles could be reversed and that could be us. If they were born into my family with the privilege and advantage that I had, maybe they would have made an even better go of it than I have. And where would I be if I were born into their circumstances.
Black people used to be made slaves and treated as less than human, because they were considered to be property, not people. We now recognise this to be wrong. Yet we fail to realise that we continue to treat people who are poor and disadvantaged in exactly the same way. In our attitudes, we reduce down or sometimes even remove their humanity altogether.
Even for those of us working in the social sector, we can be at risk of placing a glass ceiling over the heads of our beneficiaries. We don’t allow them to dream, have big goals or expect much of them. We sometimes can be guilty of thinking that because of where they have come from that a roof over their heads in semi-decent accommodation and a job at a local fast food chain is somehow “enough”. It is certainly not enough for me or what I want. So why would I assume that would be ok for someone else just because of their circumstances? Who made me the judge in this way over my fellow human beings?
People experiencing a temporary period of homelessness are not a problem that needs to be dealt with. They are not a project for us to sink our teeth into. They are people with whom we can and should be building community. They should be our friends and our equals. They should be allowed to aspire and dream in the same way that we do to fulfilling all of the potential that they have and being everything the universe destined for them to be.
Social justice is not about those that have influence, power and money, giving to those that have not. That is not justice in any sense of the term. It is a form of pity and charity that may be well intentioned but is still inherently flawed in the approach. Justice requires us to recognise the humanity in everyone. A just society is one where we recognise the humanity in EVERYONE and everyone has equal access and equal opportunity to everything that life and society have to offer.
Where life has created unfair disadvantage such that people start out on the back foot, the onus is on all of us to find ways to rectify that. Not for any other reason than the fact that we are all human and are all simply trying to find our way to navigate the ups and downs that life throws at us.