Everything old is new again, including Ferguson, and a post I wrote 6 months ago about the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty. As I look at Ferguson, and think about Selma, and Birmingham and the struggles of the people of Mississippi summed up by Fannie Lou Hamer’s epic, “sick and tired of being sick and tired, “I think about how just over 50 years ago, southern law enforcement was complicit in the repression of black people’s struggles for freedom. With dogs, and firehoses, and brutality and bullets. Then I look at Ferguson, MO in 2014 and see little difference when tanks, and rubber bullets, and tear gas and military grade weaponry are on parade as the local cops try to put the genie back in the bottle. But, the genie is out: “In Ferguson, Missouri, blacks outnumber whites by more than 2-to-1 … [But,] from January to April of this year, there were 27 whites arrested in the city compared with 217 blacks, or about 8.1 times as many black arrests as white arrests.” It’s been suggested that the racially disparate nature of traffic stops may be connected to the ways in which the local municipalities are funded. A key difference 50 years on is the difference that cell phones and twitter make in telling this story … Where the mainstream media seems to be missing, misrepresenting, or not addressing the issue in a sufficiently nuanced way, journalists on the ground, local and federal officials are filling in those gaps in real time, making it possible for us, whoever and wherever we are to see the video, hear the affected people and make the assessments and judgements for ourselves.
But should we bother? Looking at the video footage, listening to those for whom the Mike Brown tragedy is not a media story, but lived experience, make the assessment about what the role of law enforcement has been in this community? Should it matter to us, why, and if so, what should we do?
- It should matter every bit as much as the bitter conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis that demanded our attention, until this tragedy happened and hit closer to home.
- It does matter because the place where Mike Brown breathed his last, on his knees and begging for his life, is a place that we as a people pledged to move away from, and to reject 50 years ago.
- What should we do? As Fannie Lou Hamer exhorted, “we’ve got to bring in justice where there’s been so much injustice.” First, we have to stop ignoring it. Whether or not you’re a person of faith, you’re a person that matters to someone, and Mike Brown was a person who mattered, too. We must not allow him to have died in vain, which is precisely what continuing on “business as usual,” will do. Finally, we need to check our own privilege and use it for good. Our ability to engage or not, care, or not, is a privilege that the folks of Ferguson, some of whom have been arrested for sitting in cars in their driveway smoking cigarettes, do not have. We have the ability to dismiss this, “as not relevant to the concerns of middle class people,” as someone in a position to make a difference did in the story I tell in the 4th paragraph below the ****. Recognize that your privilege, whether SES, race, geographical or otherwise enables you to walk away, but make a different choice, a better choice, a decent choice, a human choice. Use your privilege for good (my previous blog on this is pasted in below the *****).
- We can decide to make a difference: 1) self educate. if you’ve not been following the stories, here is an amazing set of pictures that sets forth a chronology and lets you see the folks of Ferguson, and how this has affected/is affecting them. Missing from those pictures is the notable sidebar story of several journalists who were covering the Ferguson story being detained and arrested. 2) if and when you start to read, do so critically. Read multiple sources …. Mike Brown died one week ago (8/9). The responsible officer’s name was not released until last Friday, and they still have not released the autopsy report or the incident report. So when the same folks who seem to have problems being candid with key info. do things like, a) release convenience store video they were told by the Justice Department not to release; b) tell you that their bullets, their tear gas etc. were prompted by the actions of others, and c) fail to read their own reports as the Ferguson police chief has ‘fessed up to not having read the incident report, be skeptical. BE VERY SKEPTICAL. 3) contribute to the Mike Brown trust fund, or other groups doing good work, 3) sign a petition If the government call afford to give all this military hardware to local police, it can figure out a way to make sure that police cars, and officers have cameras. Not that all cops are bad, by any stretch, but cameras cause the bad ones to clean up their acts, and stop giving the good ones a bad name, 4) check here to see if any supportive activities are taking place near your home. If not, plan one. 5) Devise your own action plan, but act. Martin Luther King could well have been talking about Ferguson when he said the following: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
I’m starting this post the way I ended one about 6 1/2 months ago: by affirming my belief that difference makes a difference. The post ended this way: “Diversity is even more crucial for this reason: so that we recognize the basic humanity of “the other.” If a judge has no exposure to, or understanding of the background, experience and perspective of the people whose cases s/he is called upon hear, how close to rendering justice can he or she come? And how much stock should we put in the fairness of courts and competence of schools, legislatures and government offices if the people who work there don’t bear some resemblance to us and our communities? That post was focused on the differences that diversity of race and sex can bring to the table. What I want to explore here –in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty –is the difference that economic diversity brings. I was struck last week as I read articles on the War on Poverty to learn that Lyndon Baines Johnson had been poor growing up. He knew what it was to live in fear of losing your home, and to not have food in the house. And although Johnson as President was implementing a determination that President Kennedy had made to focus on poverty issues, it was his personal experience of poverty that led him to declare war on it. Fast forward
50 years and we have a U.S. Congress that is disproportionately occupied by millionaires. That Congress is having an extraordinarily difficult time making simple commitments to helping those who do not have enough to eat, or those whose unemployment insurance has or is about to run out. Whether or not that is because of merely philosophical differences, or because there is some (dis)connect between socio-economic status and the ability to empathize, I cannot say. I can advert to having seen some pretty disturbing articles in recent days including:
- A Republican candidate for Senate (thankfully not the leading one) in North Carolina likening receipt of SNAP benefits to slavery;
- Members of Congress suggesting that low income students should have to sweep floors in order to learn the lesson that “there’s no free lunch,” while expensing thousands of dollars worth of free lunches themselves;
- Members of Congress attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act for the what? The 45th time? I’ve honestly lost count.
- Members of a House Judiciary panel focused on denying tax benefits to small businesses that provide health insurance that includes coverage for abortion;
- But wait, there’s more on the abortion front: At a hearing on an anti-abortion bill last week, one Congressman opined that ensuring that more babies were born was about job creation.
While I write with a decidedly partisan bent, let me be clear: I think it’s entirely possible to be Republican, compassionate, and capable of empathy. When then Vice-Pres. George Bush said you don’t have to have cancer to be able to understand what that’s like, he was credible, and I believed him. But honestly, it feels like some of these folks on Capitol Hill are missing a gene or something as people go hungry and contemplate losing their homes while members of the House engage in another pointless Obamacare vote, and hold hearings about abortion. It just feels like we talk past as much as to each other these days. What is the disconnect? Is it lack of shared experience? Background? Belief? Why is it so hard for us to find the other person’s needs and priorities worthy of consideration and respect? Is there something about the relatively privileged nature of our leaders that makes them unable, unwilling, uninterested in acting on behalf of constituents that are different than themselves?
As I look back over this blog, I see that I began it by talking about privilege, and that it’s a theme that I’ve returned to repeatedly. I’m feeling impelled by this congressional impasse, among other things, to go there again. I want to start by giving a concrete example of how privilege works. The example I’m using is from a conference that I attended last week. Onstage were a moderator and 3 panelists, and the subject matter was being addressed in a pretty nuanced way. One panelist, an African American man, was talking about how low income black men may be more interested in discussions about co-parenting because a significant number aren’t custodial parents, and have diminished access to their kids. It was the oppression they experienced as a result of their poverty, he argued, that led them to create the space to have a discussion about rights or gender equality, or oppression. He further suggested that the need or inclination to have such a discussion was missing among middle or upper class men. The panel moderator contended that middle class families were experiencing conflicts around their roles as well. The African American panelist then proceeded to describe how group oppression and domination work: People of color, he argued, talk about undoing racism, but spaces are not being created for whites to get together alone to talk about racism, straight folks are not getting together or creating spaces to talk about heterosexism That, he argued, is how privilege works, i.e. although society needs discussions about undoing racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. to occur, the people who are benefitting most, and best placed to dismantle these structures are not talking about the advantages they enjoy as a result of the way society is structured. Then “it” happened. The very thing the African American speaker had been talking about occurred during the panel: the moderator, in response to what had been laid out, said that while he agreed, that the factors that had been laid out were not “relevant to all middle class people.” In so doing, he basically gave a pass to all people who are benefitting from structural inequality, and excused them from the African American panelist’s call for everyone to have the discussion. What happened next was equally interesting: the panelist seated closest to the moderator, himself a white male, “got” what the African American panelist had been trying to say, and offered his own experience of how difficult it is for white people to have a discussion about white privilege even when that is the explicit goal. (The entirety of the discussion I’ve described can be viewed here by clicking on the link “What About the Men?,” at beginning at the the 23 minute mark). So why should people care about having such conversations? Because once privilege is visible to the person who has it, they are much more likely to prioritize moving in the direction of fairness and equity, and to spend a lot less time blaming others for their poverty, joblessness, etc. when factors like these are often heavily impacted by the advantages that individuals do (not) have. Here’s a good read on privilege from a person who, when told that she was privileged, began from the perspective that “[her] white skin didn’t do shit to prevent [her] from experiencing poverty,” but who went on to write this pretty comprehensive piece on privilege.
So, how does my segue through “privilege made visible” connect to either the War on Poverty or today’s Congress? Quite simply, actually: 1) Lyndon Baines Johnson never forgot where he came from or what it had been like to be poor, so even as he ascended to the heights of political power where it would have been easy, and perhaps expected for him to dismiss the concerns of the poor with a “this is not relevant” to the concerns of the [American] people, he did not. To the contrary, he sought to redress the difficulties he knew that poor people experienced through no fault of their own; 2) We are now confronted with a Congress that because of its disproportionate wealth, its political views, or both, is very disposed to not only dismiss as “not relevant” the concerns of those who are struggling financially, but also to blame people who are facing financial hardships in the middle of an economic downturn for their own misfortune. If there’s anything I hope that we’ve all learned in this economic crisis, it’s “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” Who among us does not know someone who’s been laid off, or had their wages or hours reduced? Yet, despite all this, the punitive measures keep coming, the latest of which is Sen. David Vitter’s proposal to require people using a SNAP EBT card to buy groceries to show an i.d. Senator David Vitter … google him if the mere mention of his name does not evoke the eye rolling, and bold assertions that he who is with sins should be the last to cast a stone that it does on Capitol Hill from advocate and Hill staff, alike. That, my friends, is how privilege at its worst can operate: it can permit a David Vitter to commit gross moral transgressions, and yet continue to stand in judgement of others as a U.S. Senator, and to heap indignities upon those whose greatest crime is not to have the wherewithal that he does.
So what does it look like to use your privilege for good? In my mind, and the minds of many, the use of privilege for good will always look like the late Senator Ted Kennedy. It is undeniably true that Sen. Kennedy had his faults or, to move closer to what I said about David Vitter, engaged in acts for which he’s had to answer to the deity, however, it is undeniably true that Sen. Kennedy recognized that he came from an extraordinarily privileged background, and that he felt it was his obligation to use his privilege for the common good, which he did innumerable times on the Hill whether he was fighting to raise the minimum wage, to enact a fair pay bill, to strengthen civil rights laws, for universal health care or a host of other things he secured so that all of us, and not just a privileged few, could have a better tomorrow.
Just as both of these men knew that helping to press forward on civil rights, for the poor, for the unemployed, and for so many others was the right thing to do, we know that the time for victim blaming, finger pointing, and “not relevant” — if there was ever a right time — is long over and our future and our children’s hangs in the balance. The politics of obstruction and destruction must cease. That’s a tall order indeed in an election year, but the fact that it is an election year holds incredible promise for us to right the listing ship. We have to stop sending to Washington people who are supposed to carry out the will of the people, but who instead, do anything but: obstructing, grandstanding, and politicizing. We have to hold people accountable and refuse to send anyone to Washington who does not have a solid record and history of fighting for the common good.
I close by pointing out that in President Obama, we have a man who has known what it is to struggle, and who gets the need to address inequality. Excerpted below are two key parts of his recent speech on income equality:
- “I take this personally. I’m only here because this country educated my grandfather on the GI Bill. When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry.”
- “The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe. … A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. He’s 10 times likelier to stay where he is.”
Fifty years later, there’s still a war to won won whether you talk about poverty or inequality. Our challenge is to use our privilege for good, and to send the President (by way of the Congress) people who are willing to do the same. There are too many crucial things that need to get done: immigration reform, unemployment insurance extensions, voting rights reform, and reauthorization of the SNAP program just to name four. Ask yourself today, as we reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, and every day, how you can use your privilege for good.