No Justice. No Peace Unity.

STORY BY Neeraj Mehta ART BY Ruthie Johnson

FROM India 


They raised my sister and me in a tight knit community of fellow Indian immigrants in the mostly white northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. The strength of our community provided the solidarity and support that we needed to survive and thrive in a new culture and new home. I’ve witnessed its lasting power in the past year as my parents and their friends have handled the ups and downs of COVID together. 


Growing up in between these two worlds showed me the power and strength that came from being Indian and the way it contributed to who we were as both Minnesotans and Americans. I appreciate the way my parents balanced developing their American identity with resisting the demands this country makes to newcomers — to give up part of who they are.

My experience seeing my parents navigate that pressure to assimilate is maybe why I bristle at the current calls for unity coming from those at the top of our country’s established hierarchy — those who I perceive as having been the least harmed by our lack of unity and who may also have the least to lose from the process of becoming unified.


calls for unity are wrapped up in persistent race and class hierarchies, uneven distributions of power, and deep historic injustices.
None of which should be ignored, undertheorized, or oversimplified for the sake of a pithy bumper sticker statement. 

The divisions we face today are neither surfacy nor artificial. While historic, they are also fresh, they are deep, and they are open. For the past four years, appeals to nativism, racism, and xenophobia have been present every single day, stoking anxiety, resentment, and fear. And the impact of this was borne disproportionately by communities of color, immigrants, Muslims, and others who have been marginalized and oppressed in our country for decades and centuries. 

It feels like we are asking these communities to leave their pain or trauma or lawsuits at the door in the name of “national unity,” whatever that means. And this is where I slow down, this is where I back up, this is where I turn around and run away from the calls for unity. It feels like an all too familiar erasure of our country’s oppressive past and present. It feels like we’re asking for full identification with and loyalty to a nation in which the basic structure of society remains deeply unjust and where the burdens of this injustice fall heavily and disproportionately on Black, Indigenous, and people of color and those who live at the intersections of race and gender identity and sexual orientation. 


“It feels like an all too familiar erasure of our country’s oppressive past and present.”


Which is why I am not surprised, and I would argue neither should you be surprised, when members of these communities withhold allegiance to the nation or calls for unity and instead invest more in cultivating solidarity and mutual aid within their own communities as a matter of self-defense and survival. For whatever value “unity” holds for those who have been disenfranchised, I’d say “justice” holds far more.

No Justice. No Peace Unity.


Don’t get me wrong, I think ending division is a good goal, even if it is a less interesting bumper sticker. But I don’t think calling for unity is what gets us there. A serious commitment to unity requires a serious call and commitment to justice. Unity would be an outflow or byproduct of our country pursuing and achieving justice in visible and tangible ways. 

True justice in America will require deep sacrifice, repair, and healing. There is no cost-free escape from a history of harm spanning generations, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his article “The Case for Reparations.” But too often the calls for unity put the cost of that unity at the feet of those most harmed by our disunity. 


“A serious commitment to unity requires a serious call and commitment to justice.”



So, what would the pursuit of unity through a serious commitment to justice look like? It starts by asking the question, “What would justice require?” and it flows from there. It would require us to tell better stories and build new narratives that push us to reckon with the reality and depth of our divisions, where they come from, who they impact, and why they persist. It would require addressing imbalances of power that exist at all levels of our society. And it would require new public policies, new practices, and new resources that work to close our nation’s many racial and economic divides. 

Our aim might be unity, but our path requires justice.

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Neeraj Mehta
Neeraj Mehta is the director of learning at the McKnight Foundation. He has spent his career working at the intersections of urban planning and community development, community organizing and research justice. Prior to joining McKnight he served as the director of community programs at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota and adjunct faculty at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Neeraj was also a Bush Foundation leadership fellow from 2011-2013. He’s been a proud Northsider since 2001, where he and his partner Erin are raising their sons, Ezra and Koen.
Ruthie Johnson
Ruthie is an experienced racial justice practitioner with a strong background in coaching, training, and curriculum development. Prior to moving into independent consulting, she worked within higher ed, affordable housing, civic agencies, and a handful of non-profit organizations. She's also served on the Metropolitan Councils' Equity Advisory Committee & participated with Wilder's Community Equity Program. When she isn't working to dismantle white supremacy, she loves to take walks to Theo Wirth Park, create things & eat good food with friends.
Jerome Rankine
As Editorial Director, Jerome is the keeper of Pollen’s editorial voice and vision. He works with Pollen’s talented stable of writers to produce stories that entertain, enlighten, and invite readers to take action. Jerome spends a lot of time hunched over keyboards--either editing the latest Pollen feature, or composing music in his home studio. He’s active in local politics, less active on social media, and more active in his kitchen.
Melanie Walby
Melanie Walby is the Design Director of Pollen Midwest who joined our team after working at various ad agencies in Minneapolis. Her illustration, typography and design bring stories to life in collaboration with our freelance network of illustrators and photographers. She's a former board member of AIGA Minnesota, was recently named one of AdFed’s “32 Under 32”, and has been featured in Communication Arts,, and Adobe Creative Jam. Melanie’s work is driven by a deep understanding of how art and design moves people towards social change.