Watching the deep divides in our country turn from large and unsightly cracks into straight-up craters you can fit airports and football stadiums in, I want to share a simple observation about poverty, in particular, that, of all things, is inspired by a song about violence in America’s hoods.
“We’re All in the Same Gang” (1990) was an all-star Hip-Hop West Coast “We Are the World” that echoes the same problems and issues with police, intraracial violence, poverty, crime that their East Coast musical counterparts sang passionately about in the track “Self Destruction” just the previous year in 1989.
While “Self Destruction” had the uber woke factor with groups like Public Enemy bringing social and historical context, the West Coast rappers like NWA, did what they did, telling it like it is, from their geographical perspective. All descendants of the Great Migration, whether East or West, they were dealing with simply different flavors of the same kind of urban problems facing people of color.
If Donald Trump were the president in the late 80s and early 90s, I’m guessing he’d declare South Central Los Angeles as a war zone with crime and murder running rampant, the way he’s been describing Chicago this week, threatening federal action, if this “carnage” doesn’t improve. Like modern-day Chicago, shit was real in L.A. So real, that as a native New Yorker, and only 8 years old at the time, I vowed never to go there, for fear that I, or someone I loved would be killed on the spot for wearing the wrong color.
Fear is a powerful thing. Misinformation combined with fear is even more powerful. To say today’s times are challenging is a total understatement.
Which brings me to the original reason for this post. I can discuss the merits of “We’re All in the Same Gang” and “Self Destruction” all day, but my real point is while Easy-E, et. all rapped about how the rampant, senseless violence primarily among the rival Bloods and Crips had to cease, when we address poverty and who is deserving of charity and deserving of blame for their circumstances, as Kendrick Lamar so eloquently pointed out we’re “set trippin all around.”
And these “sets” are defined by race, whether a poor person is rural or urban, and if things like proximity to long gone industries in desolate towns in predominately white neighborhoods make people more trustworthy and more deserving of our sympathy than a person living on an Indian reservation or Black and Latino people living in public housing in a projects that rise up to the sky in urban metropolises, we all missed the damn point. Poverty sucks for everyone. Not one group is better than another, we’re all in the same gang. And prior to his untimely death, Dr. Martin Luther King was just getting started on uniting people around poverty, because it was something everyone, regardless of race could feel. Conspiracy theorists have long surmised that if Dr. King could successfully get people to rally together on issues of poverty, and not being fixated on something as ridiculous as skin color, that’s when he would have truly been dangerous.
But capitalism, for better or worse, is our greatest strength- it keeps the lights on while we enjoy our other freedoms- but is our greatest moral weakness.
I hate, hate, hate, the way in which on the national stage the media reports on poverty. Reporters, as well-meaning as we try to be report from this established lens of bias, and may even be encouraged to report on poverty in this way by our editors. And it needs to stop. At one of my publications, I was the “hood” reporter. By the editors’ logic, being young and black were perfect qualifications– it seemed that the citizens would respond better to me, or I’d blend in. Folks wouldn’t be as hostile to me. And off I went, being used for a certain purpose, but also seeing my color as currency to tell these stories with more heart, with more compassion, asking the questions that my white colleagues may not, inserting observations of things they’d neglect as irrelevant.
And while it’s very important to outline the nuance of poverty through those lenses of race and gender and locale, we lack the ability to amplify the similarities all of these people share– regardless of race, or if they live in a trailer park in a small town the South, a Midwestern town still holding on to hope for outdated jobs in outdated industries that left decades ago, or a low-income housing project in a major metropolitan city.
As a society, we arbitrarily determine who is the “deserving” poor, and who “fell on hard times” and just needs a hand up and who is just “lazy” and exploiting the government, looking for handouts, uncivilized and should be left to figure it out, like the rest of us.
We base these things on:
our varying levels of privilege,
our own experiences where our pride and or feelings got hurt due to some injustice or act of blatant unfairness
and whether or not we were able to face and overcome challenges with little, or no support.
During this exercise, we manage to simultaneously pat ourselves on the back for whatever degree of success and stability we’ve achieved, while kicking people who are obviously down for reasons that are none of our business. But we liberally dole out the judgement and then argue amongst ourselves online or over wine and apps about why people are poor, whose fault it is and what an inconvenience it is to us all, meanwhile poor folks are probably looking at this tired ass, masturbatory debate saying, “You know we’re right here, right?”
The acceptance of the invisibility of the poor and the lengths we go to to keep it that way to protect ourselves from feeling shame is the reason why, I think poverty articles in the mainstream don’t really go there.
We can help our fellow man, but it requires some sacrifice and discomfort.
As little kids, we are all taught to share. We should have grown up to be better citizens, but life.
Most little kids see need and say here’s what I have. Let’s fix it. Let’s be happy, we don’t want this person to be sad or scared. How many times have you been in the company of a child, and their innocence and concern led you to give money to someone in need because the child noticed that person, and forced you to see them. The Invisibility shield is single-handedly destroyed by children’s unbridled compassion without pity. A child’s sense of fairness is absolute and they are the experts. They have no problem with identifying what’s unfair, and letting you know about it and demanding explanation about why the problem is being solved in the manner in which it is being solved, or not being solved at all. They are indignant. Good for them. Because they are the most honest humans of us all until taught not to be for self preservation. They don’t see zip code or color, they see need, pain and that something is not right and needs to be corrected immediately. To them, the answer is simple. Help.
Coverage of poor communities tend to go two ways and per the usual, the fault lines begin with race. I’ve read stories about outraged white suburban housewives who land or languish in poverty under various circumstances that can further derail all women in poverty (bad choices, domestic violence, drugs, abuse). These women get sensitive feature articles about being shamed at grocery stores when they pay with their public assistance and are judged for the “luxury items tax payers feel they shouldn’t be paying for” in their carts.
There is sympathy for the stories about poor white people struggling with heroin and meth addictions is overwhelming and so far reaching, it makes its way into successful legislation and social programs in cities and states where the majority of citizens are white. These programs often include experimental initiatives that provide clean homes in safe neighborhoods, particularly for white women with families, and get this, these programs get full support from both Republicans and Democrats in those areas. And then the comments that accompany those stories are filled with a lot of support and sympathy. Occasionally, you will find the equal opportunity ass hat who at least blames everyone for their own misfortune, who doesn’t want his or her tax dollars going to lazy bums.
But the narrative and response to Black, Latino, Native American and Trans women in poverty is a predictably different story altogether. They are seen as generational, inevitable, problems and they are blamed for creating their circumstances, which leads to the logic that their birthing children into poverty continuing to perpetuate the awful circumstances in urban areas. These women are expected and told to appreciate the little they have and dare not demand or expect more if they see the quality of the “same” types of social services are better, in other places. These women aren’t to be rescued like their counterparts in Western and Pacific Northwest communities that benefit from really great programs and opportunities.
If you’re from the South Side of Chicago, or East Baltimore or Southeast DC, you deserve what you get. And if you get a penny more, it is a hand out that contributes to vices, addictions and undeserved luxuries.
And while it’s not surprising, because the consistent uplift and protection of white women of any economic status is embedded in our history, and has been the root cause of false imprisonment and death, we should know better now. We need to truly value all lives. We should correct it. This is why writers are making astute comparisons about how safe the recent Women’s March on Washington was. It wasn’t just because the protesters were “thanking” the officers, who are already very well-trained on how to handle several thousands of protesters anyway. The tone of how large crowds are policed is set by who is in the crowd. There’s a different feeling in the air and a tension when certain concerts or events attract certain types of people and the police respond in kind (riot gear, vs. not using riot gear) whether we want to admit that or not. This is another reason why the argument is being made that after the women’s march, white, female support and attendance is crucial to preventing harsh brutality imposed on protesters by the hands of police at the demonstrations at the pipeline and Black Lives Matter marches because police don’t see them as a threat.
Beyond the example of white women, there is a sympathy extended to dilapidated former factory communities, that is not so readily extended to pockets of poverty in other places.
While comments regarding Flint simply told residents to “just move” if the water is bad, or “just leave” before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, my response is you’re right, don’t you think they would have left if they could have? Poverty is a weight. It keeps you stagnant. It cuts off your air supply and your feet. You need help to move and breathe, you can’t will yourself into a better life if you’re just making minimum wage. The middle class is barely middle class. What it takes to own a home today is drastically different than it was 30 years ago.
And while Flint residents demand something basic like water and New Orleans residents just wanted help to leave and help to rebuild, they were rebuked for wanting handouts. Meanwhile poor residents of dead factory communities have the ear of a brand new president to bring their obsolete jobs and factories back? Hold up. How is one situation asking for a handout, and the other asserting one’s right to economic recovery, and the government’s responsibility to facilitate it? The same type of poverty that keep people in Flint and in the Wards of New Orleans, is THE SAME poverty choking the life from people in Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. And that inaccurate representation of who is deserving of help has to be changed.
We all need safe, clean places to live. Poor parents want their children to be safe, to be able to feed them and send them to school where they can get a quality education. They all want to be able to visit the doctor and get adequate healthcare before small problems turn to life-threatening issues due to neglect and inability to pay for services, medication and ongoing, consistent treatments.
We need to rethink of poverty among our citizens in a holistic way and tie together the similarities of their struggle in our stories about poverty. Black or white, rural or urban, America’s low-income communities have the SAME PROBLEMS PERIOD.