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.