Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II delivered a powerful lecture on “Poverty, Health, and Social Justice” on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 at Duke University. The event coincided with the United Nations World Day of Social Justice and was the 2018 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture and Boyarsky Lecture in Law, Medicine, and Ethics. Dr. Barber served as president of the North Carolina NAACP from 2006-2017 and is currently the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the president of Repairers of the Breach. The lecture opened with a video depicting speakers from the Poor People’s Campaign, and the excitement in the room was palpable as Dr. Barber took the stage at the culmination of the film. Rev. Dr. Barber spoke eloquently to a sold-out crowd at Page Auditorium about “SOS: Saving Our Ship of State,” which he said could be accomplished by “Seeing clearly, Organizing intentionally, and Standing together.”
According to Barber, the first step toward social justice is understanding the true definition of racism, which is not only one’s individual biases, but also the covert structural violence of creating public policies that are inherently unequal for different groups of people. Barber argued, “Racism is not about hate alone… institutional racism is about public policy.” He illustrated his point with contemporary examples of voter suppression, which he stated was more prevalent in poverty-stricken areas that were the most susceptible to underfunding and policies that create and worsen healthcare disparities. Barber even challenged traditional ideas of racism by extending his definition of systematic racism beyond typical boundaries of color or ethnicity in a thought-provoking argument that it is not only black and brown people who are harmed by policies that do not take their needs into account, but also “poor and working class white people,” such as those in western North Carolina. According to Barber, poverty has often been racialized and attributed to lethargy, but of the 40 million Americans who live in poverty, three-quarters are women and children, and there are 8 million more white people living under the poverty line than black people. Dr. Barber asserted that the first step toward democratic morality is to see the true, diverse faces of poverty and work toward national policies that provide equality and access to healthcare for all.
Dr. Barber diagnosed America with a “moral malady” that was not based on affiliation with Democrat or Republican parties but rather on an unscrupulous willingness to harm the majority for the benefit of a wealthy minority. Barber’s moving call to action, in which he encouraged listeners to stand together to fight racism, poverty, and environmental degradation as common issues of morality, was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Dr. Barber concluded his compelling lecture to thunderous applause by encouraging his audience to “dare to shift the narrative and declare to history that has yet been and the future that is yet to come, in our time, with the few breaths of the life that we have and the few years in this earth that we chose not to be silent, we chose not to be content, and we chose to cry loud and to change the heart of this nation.”
Emily Long is a double major in Biology and English and a double minor in Chemistry and Medicine, Literature, and Culture.