If we are talking race, let us add class too…musings inspired by Don Lemon

Sixteen years ago when I started my career in social services, I was immediately struck by the fact that almost all the clients that came through my agency’s doors were either Black or Latino. Prior to moving to Maine, I worked at a host of agencies in Chicago big and small; yet no matter the size or location of the agency, it was rare to have white clients. So rare that one could have easily made the assumption that clearly white people were never in need. That it was only people of color who found themselves in need and perhaps the Black community was in a state of disarray and needed to get its shit together.  I am embarrassed to admit that for a brief time, I did have such thoughts. I am sure such thoughts were helped along by the fact that when the media spotlight is on, it always shows a face of color as being in need.

Then a funny thing happened, I moved to Maine in 2002 and I saw a side of need that is never discussed in the mainstream media at large. A face of poverty that does not feature urban Blacks or Appalachian Whites that are mentioned when poverty does have a face that is not of color. In the past decade I have learned that what I have seen in my work here in Maine is actually part of America’s dirty little secret when it comes to poverty in this country.

For the past five years I have served at an agency in an “urban” part of Maine where almost 99% of the people who receive services provided by my agency are white. The community that my agency serves is primarily clustered in high density, government subsidized housing. Where it is not uncommon for families to have involvement with the local child protective services, where the majority of households are led by a single parent. Substance abuse addiction is not uncommon, so much so that a few summers ago I nearly stepped on a used syringe strewn about in a common area where children play. Most of the youth that my agency serves are growing up way too fast in this culture of poverty that looks nothing like the mainstream media representations of whiteness in America. I see a community where pawn shops, cheap bodega like stores where cheap smokes, booze and eats are the norm except that almost all the players are white.

So, why am I sharing this? Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News personality recently felt the need to explain to the Black community that we, Black Americans need to get our shit together. We need to get our heads out of the culture of victimhood that has us (Black folks) sinking in this land of plenty. Bill is a relic of a time past, a bitter man who should be ignored; it’s too late for him.

However this weekend, Don Lemon, one of the few Black anchors left at CNN, decided that what Bill O’Reilly said actually didn’t go far enough, in fact he decided to gift us with his list of what Black America needs to do to get its shit together.

This list of amazing (snort) insights includes: “Pull up your pants; don’t use the n-word; respect one’s environment by not littering; finish high school; and don’t have children out of wedlock.”  See in Mr. Lemon’s very small world, he has never seen a white community with litter, nor has he seen any young white men walking around with their pants falling down either. I admit Don Lemon’s list is funny because it showed me what a great snow job America has done on its people. We see economic inequality as a racial problem and not indicative of the larger class divide that I am starting to think may actually destroy this country. See, all the behaviors that Don ascribes to Black people, I in my unscientifically proven methodology could ascribe to any of the hundreds of low income whites that that I have worked with in the past decade. By insisting that it is only Black America that has a problem, we not only let America off the hook by its refusal to truly look at poverty and its effects. We are ensuring that the millions struggling in this increasingly unfair economic system where the fastest growing job industries pretty much guarantee a lifetime place in the lower working class will continue to be hidden. There is also the fact that as a Black man making such comments, Don Lemon has decided that only certain behaviors are respectable and frankly the politics of respectability are tiring at best and insulting at worse. After all if we don’t need the “race hustlers” as Don’s pal Bill would suggest, why the hell do we need the “respectability hustlers” either?

The truth is that most people regardless of race or ethnicity living with limited financial means will do whatever it takes to survive and that every culture has its own rules. Even the culture of financial scarcity. Just that in a land that lives and die on the myth Horatio Alger and that refuses to acknowledge that pulling oneself up by its bootstraps requires boots with straps, looking outside our individual lens of privilege is often too much work for us so we would rather resort to demonizing and categorizing people to avoid any heavy lifting.



Who’s the real scammer?

From a brief glance it would be easy to assume that the economic catastrophe of 2008 is nothing but a distant memory, a bad dream that we have all recovered from. After all, the stock market is up, business profits are up, CEO’s are taking home ginormous bonuses and it seems every man, woman and child in America is walking around the either the latest iPhone or a tablet computer. Clearly we are all basking in the joys of economic stability or maybe it’s all an illusion?

I work in social services, granted as the executive director I do a lot less working with people than I used to. But I still analyze the data and talk to professional colleagues and the one thing we all agree on is that things aren’t getting better. We are all continuing to see staggering numbers of people in need of essentials such as food, shelter and childcare. (sometimes even school supplies, coats and shoes too) The spigot was turned on in 2008 and frankly the basin is overflowing with people in need. At my agency, I am facing record growth which if I were the CEO of a profit making venture would be awesome but in my line of work, record growth means I spend a lot of time making hard decisions since record growth doesn’t mean record revenue to meet the needs of that record growth but that is an entirely different post.

What I am seeing more and more of is stories like this, national publications are actually starting to take notice of those folks that I have been talking about since 2009-the formerly middle class. Folks who might look a lot like you; they used to own the house, two cars, and a few fancy gadgets and even had a nest egg. Many of those folks are now living in ways they never dreamed of, mired in the hardscrabble new world of poverty. They often still cling to their middle class fantasies and dreams that they will turn their ships around but make no mistake, once you have entered a world of living in the pay by the week hotels and frequenting food pantries, your odds of taking the elevator back to the middle class are only slightly better than a winning Powerball ticket. Especially in this brave new world where permanent well-paying employment opportunities elude even the college educated. This brave new world is a place where we are all the captains of our fate, using fancy euphemisms to hide the fact that we lack the stability that was the norm only a generation ago. Consulting, freelancing, self-employed are all valid options but too many of us aren’t doing these things because we want to, we are doing them because they are our only opportunities for employment. After all, some money beats no money.

Funny thing is that despite this economic tsunami and its victims, we Americans are a proud lot; refusing to accept that the jobs are gone and that going out and getting a job is a lot easier said than done. Instead we turn on one another and destroy our own, lashing out at the man down the street who decides to apply for permanent disability status which will ensure him a permanent though meager paycheck, access to healthcare via the government funded Medicaid program and access to subsidized housing rather than continue to suffer the indignities of a job search that is futile.

We eat our own for lunch and feel disgust for the moochers and the scammers, eager to cut people off from the dribs and drabs of the economic safety net rather than turning our anger on the corporate overlords who truly own our asses and have made us their wage slaves. But hey who’s the moocher?