Friday, June 19, 2009

Poverty = Violence

On Thursday, as I prepared to leave my home for the five hour drive to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I was committed to participate in a public hearing on poverty in Lambert yesterday, I found the following comment on my post about the last visit I made to the Delta:

"When I found out about this article, I just had to read & respond to it. I am a resident of Lambert,Ms. I too have lived there all of my life. I attended the public schools there. When you live in an rural area such as Lambert, you don't have many choices. You either apply yourself in school and go on to further your education or you CHOOSE to be content with your life and surroundings. I chose the first.

"There are MANY who chose to better themselves. My friends and neighbors are teachers, nurses, law enforcement officers, highway patrolmen, lawyers, dentists, doctors, school administrators, casino workers, grocery store workers, farm attendants, you name it. I say all of this because WE ALL CAME FROM THE SAME PLACE.

"Yes, Lambert is the, 'City of Hope.' But you must have the drive within to want a better life. I can say this because I see the good and the bad in my community everyday. Lambert does not have a grocery store, doctor's office or a general merchandise store. We do have access to all of the before mentioned. We have 5 housing complexes, all with central heating and air. Everyone who qualifies for a program called Mis-State, which will pay electricity, gas and qualify you for food-stamp assistance. No one has to or should live in the conditions that family lives in. I do believe on helping the community. Yes we should take care of the elderly, children and those who cannot do for themselves.

"I do not think that our community should have to be responsibe for able-bodied, young adults. I am a young adult. I attended the Quitman County Schools. I could have dropped out and hung in the streets but that wasn't an option in my household. As with a lot of households, my sibling and I had to graduate from high school and attend college. My mom always told us that she wanted her children to have more education than her. My mom has her Master's in Education. I am working on my Master's in Nursing. I am a firm beliver that you shape how you want your life, no matter the circumstances. I am from a single-parent household. My mom taught school during the day and went to college at night. I have friends who became pregnant while in highschool. That didn't deter them from graduating and going on to college.

"There are families that have received new free homes and end up losing the homes because they borrowed money against the home or they never pay the property tax. There is a lot of good going on in Lambert. We are a small community and we try to take care of the truly needy. There are families who went thru the proper channels to receive new homes. There are many programs out there for those who truly want help." -- DownHomeDiva

I appreciate your taking time to share your perspective, Diva, and I congratulate you on your professional success. Actually, I wrote this response to your comment while in Lambert and just wasn't able to post it until now, and I did see that parts of Lambert are as lovely as any other community I might visit.

The point is not that there's poverty in Lambert or even that some people are particularly poverty-stricken -- for whatever reason. And certainly, I would not suggest that we should just hand out free houses or free cars or free anything necessarily. I was in Lambert yesterday because of the way poverty has been institutionalized in our country -- and not just in Lambert -- to disproportionately shut many poor people and, most particularly, poor people of color out of the loop of financial well-being and economic development entirely.

Is it possible for an African-American brought up in a single-parent home to earn a Master's Degree in nursing? Absolutely! Frederick Douglass was born a slave, after all. I myself -- though admittedly not African-American -- spent five years on welfare in my thirties and now I teach college. One of the reasons I became a sociologist is that I celebrate the indefatigueable human spirit. To paraphrase Maya Angelou's poem, "We rise. Like dust. We rise."

Nevertheless, Martin Luther King, Jr., understood when he kicked off the first Poor People's Campaign in Marks (just a few miles from Lambert) in 1968, that poverty is violence and that, while it is always true that some will "make it" somehow, the majority of those in truly abject poverty have difficulty doing so and the causes are known. It's hard, for one thing, to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when somebody stole your shoes. This country became the rich nation it is on the free labor of African people who received no acknowledgement and no financial benefits from that labor during or after it was appropriated. Just because it was never paid doesn't mean the debt doesn't matter. Only a couple of decades ago, cotton field workers in the Delta were still making $80 for working an 80-hour week. What kind of life could be built on that kind of foundation?

Another reason people sometimes get stuck is that they don't have immediate role models. It cannot be underestimated the power that relationships with successful individuals has on children. Conversely, the power of being surrounded by people whose lives are a testimony to their discouragment, depression, and hopelessness is at least equally powerful, if not more so. When I was told by my father, for example, at eighteen years of age that "women are for sex and cooking," it would not have affected me nearly so much if I had known one woman personally who had broken through that barrier. As it was, it took me twenty years to get over the infection that statement imbedded in my psyche.

You mention growing up in a single-parent household, but you also mention that your mother was a teacher while you were still a child. What if she had been a former sharecropper -- now unemployed -- who had to drop out of school at thirteen to eat? Do you imagine you would still be earning your Master's Degree? Statistical data tells us that the single greatest predictor of how far a child will go in school is how far their parents went. That doesn't mean it's impossible to go beyond, just that the odds are against the child who has to scale uncharted territory.

Yet another nail in the coffin of persistent poverty is the expectation of others. In a country where the default position is White Supremacy, children of color from coast to coast routinely meet reduced expectations in school and otherwise. It's a matter of public record that the effects of this over time are damning to the developing souls of children. And I would argue that along with the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent and the continuing travesty of Black men languishing in the bellies of this nation's prisons and jails without cause, what is being perpetrated against children of color under this U.S. system will send the decision-makers in this nation to hell if there's any justice in this universe at all.

This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the first Poor People's Campaign in 1968 and why Antoinette Harrell and Ines Soto-Palmarin co-founded Gathering of Hearts and called for yesterday's poverty tour and public hearing. They're not saying people need more free stuff. They're saying we shouldn't keep operating as if money is more important than life. They're saying that we can't morally defend prioritizing war over job development. They're saying we need to remember that all children have an inalienable right to adequate nutrition, safety, medical attention, and education. And they are saying that, without a vision, the people perish.

You and your immediate neighbors may have jobs and homes and vehicles, but when 30,000 textile factory jobs left Mississippi and were not replaced in the 1990's a lot of people became long-term unemployed. Not to mention the fact that, while your mother was able to supplement your education, the Mississippi schools in general are statistically the worst in the nation. These are things government officials can address. Unfortunately, they're so committed to putting money in corporate pockets -- and their own --they claim not to have anything left to meet these other challenges.

Nobody's criticizing your hometown, Diva. We -- just like MLK before us -- are simply saying that the citizens of the United States should be able to expect a reasonable quality of life, no matter whether they're Black or White, male or female, from Michigan or Mississippi. Everyone's all in a lather about the formerly middle class (and above) White folks who are having trouble meeting the mortgage payments on their quarter of a million dollar houses now because the job market's gone belly up. Gathering of Hearts is just trying to remind us that there are people in America who were already poor before last year. They were at the bottom of the ladder before and being ignored. Now, with the new economic developments, there's every possibility that they'll go from being ignored to being forgotten completely.

I live in a parish in Louisiana where 60% of the public schools are still segregated. Some people drive their kids all the way from Mississippi every day to attend these segregated schools and the ones that are racially identifiable as White look like palaces compared to the ones that are racially identifiable as Black. African-American men are four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men at every educational level. African-American life expectancy is shorter. African-American babies are more likely to be born with low birth weight. And European-American families hold on average eleven times the wealth of African-American families. Sociologists call the practice of holding people responsible for attacks against them "blaming the victim." Even victims of attack have power -- especially in numbers. But that doesn't make the attack deserved.

What I describe is only the tip of the iceberg and it all suits well a system that is calculated to keep the most of the best for people that look like me and relegate African-Americans to whatever's left over. Then, when someone like you, Diva, makes it out from under anyway, those with the power to define point at you and say, "See. Black people have the same opportunities as White people. If they aren't doing well, it's their own fault." And they've said it so long and repeated it so often, they've convinced even you that it's true.


I'm Shakin' My Head said...

I totally agree with the saying on the button. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.

I feel like poverty is a mindset, and many in our community have yet to break through it. We've made some strides, but we're nowhere close to where we need to be.

Changeseeker said...

While I would agree with you, Head, that poverty produces a mindset, I think it produces the mindset rather than the other way around. I believe that poverty has been entrenched in the African-American community intentionally by institutionalizing practices that make it veeeeeery difficult for people to crawl out of the hole. Then they blame the poor for not rising above the daily grind they aren't allowed to escape. One obvious example of this would be keeping the minimum wage SO low nobody could live on it and then making sure that millions of African-Americans won't be hired at any better rate of pay.

And by the way, welcome to my house. Drop back by anytime.

Anonymous said...

Great post and I wish people understood this.

Slightly OT - I've been up to find that Canton property now, although I cut up through Natchez instead of going through Hammond.

Quite interesting. 1760 acres in northern Madison Co., in different patches, not all together, no great house I know of yet and not sure when (if all at once or not) it was sold off. Apparently the house in MD (where FD lived) was heavily encumbered and much land sold in early 20th C; I'm thinking the MS LA AR and TX parcels must have gone to different cotton farmers around then if not earlier.

Will dig more as I have time.

Will Capers said...

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks, Will. I'm loving how you're wading your way through my archives. My favorite thing about the internet is that it's a grand library of past writing (my own and other people's). But the whole purpose is to have it read, of course.