But I Know This

Urban Blight

Jack and I were driving through St. Louis not too long ago when I had a sudden outburst.

“Okay, I have some questions,” I began. “Why is it that neighborhoods here seem to be separated by skin color? And why is that the areas of town with people whose skin color is anything but white tend to be more run down? And why are those run-down places more dangerous?”

Please understand that these are existential questions for me. I’m convinced I must not only take personal responsibility for figuring out the answers, but I must also do something to right the wrongs. Those of you who perceive me to be mildly (or thoroughly) high-strung now have a deeper understanding of who I am. At my core, I am angst. I don’t feel it or express it. I am it.

I know my questions could be answered be exploring history and public policy, sociology and criminology. I also know the answers are complex and convoluted. The conversation is further complicated by judgments and assumptions that get swirled together and then presented as fact:

  • It’s because they’re lazy.
  • They should just move to a better neighborhood.
  • Their mothers are crackheads.
  • They keep having babies so they can get more government benefits.
  • They could get out of poverty if they wanted to, but they obviously prefer living off welfare.

Let me speak to those, just super-quick:

  • Yes, I suppose some people could be described as lazy. But why? What’s going on that some people decide, “Why bother?” No, I’m not trying to justify bad behavior, and yes, people should take personal responsibility for their lives. However, it seems many people do everything “right” and nevertheless continue to encounter systemic obstacles that prevent them from moving forward. I suspect I’d quit trying at some point, too. Isn’t that better described as oppression than laziness?
  • If you think it’s easy for people to just pick up and move to a “better neighborhood,” please recognize that gentrification is making better neighborhoods wholly unaffordable.
  • Tennessee implemented drug tests as a prereq for receiving public assistance. Know how many applicants are users? Less than one-quarter of one percent. In fact, “economically vulnerable people are less likely than the general population to use drugs.”
  • State regulations vary, but when I worked in social services in Nebraska, babies born after benefits started didn’t count in the formula. In other words, more babies does not equal more money.
  • Have you ever seen a welfare check? “Living off welfare” is an oxymoron. (Okay, in all fairness, if people are benefitting from every available program, they’ll be better off than some people with full-time employment. Which, of course, is a whole ‘nother conversation.)

Here’s the biggie question, I suppose: Why is it that people in poverty are disproportionately people of color? I don’t believe for one tiny second it’s because White folks are more hard-working. I think it’s because having white skin offers some unfair advantages. (Normally when I say that, someone–always a White person–suggests that I’m experiencing undue white guilt. I don’t feel guilty for having white skin; I feel guilty for not working against power structures that perpetuate white privilege.)

Listen, I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of the race conversation in America today. I almost didn’t finish this post because I feel critically under-qualified to approach the topic. I can’t speak with any authority about the systemic issues that give rise to economic injustice. I have a vague sense that education is a massive piece of the whole mess, but I’m unable to speak intelligently or persuasively about potential solutions. In other words, I’m basically clueless. (And I’m almost certain someone’s going to argue with me, which I’ll take personally, and then I’ll have to eat my feelings. In fact, I’ve already eaten a large-ish bowl of Lucky Charms in anticipation of the forthcoming backlash.) (I’m what you’d call a piece of work.)

Anyway, like I said–I don’t know all the intricacies of this race conversation, but I know this: If the Church were doing her job, the questions would disappear.

Economic injustice wouldn’t be a thing, because we’d each have only what we need, and we’d give the rest away. That is not socialism. Well, maybe it is; but it’s also biblical. Unfortunately–in my experience–it’s Bible-carrying folks who tend to be the the least merciful and the most judgmental about “those people.”

It’s so much easier to ignore a problem when we dehumanize the people whom it affects, isn’t it?

The whole concept of “those people” would disappear, because we would recognize everyone whom we encounter as a person of great worth. There would be no divisions based on race or class or gender or nationality or whatever. Also biblical.

Here’s where things might be breaking down: The Church seems to think that our purpose in serving “the least of these” is to introduce them to Jesus. So, instead of being Jesus to people living in poverty, we’re trying to bring them to Jesus. Ludicrous. Some of those most faith-full people I’ve encountered were also the most destitute. I’ve had people without homes in St. Louis and people without shoes in Guatemala pray for me. And if people in poverty have given up on Jesus, it might just be because we haven’t represented Him well. Or at all.

Also, we’re prone to feeling a bit superior and calvary-ish when we decide to help in some way. Our posture’s all wrong, even if our heart’s right, and because people in poverty in this country tend to be not White, we inadvertently widen the mental gap between “us” and “them.”

Agh. My brain’s all over the place, so let me sum up:

I don’t understand everything about race and poverty, but I know this: Some people experience a radically different quality of life because of their skin color. That’s abhorrent. And the Church cannot continue to ignore it.

4 Comments

  1. Cindy   •  

    This is one of those constant “problems” my mind tries to sort out and untangle in the background. I’m constantly trying to rationalize that it can’t possibly be as simple as God made me white and someone else a different color and therefore our life trajectory is forever altered. But anything else sounds like choices or a couple lucky breaks and why can’t we figure out how to modify those for anyone who wants to? I TOTALLY feel white guilt and then find that kind of amusing. I grew up in what I would call lower-middle class. We never wanted for necessities but we lived frugally. I grew up in a small home (ONE bathroom, can you imagine?!?!), we pretty much had exactly what we needed and rarely anything more. We went out to eat a few times a year, we got new clothes a couple times a year. I got a job within days of my 16th birthday, but that was my spending money really, I didn’t have to contribute any of it to living expenses (because my dad paid child support and my mom was usually working) By chance, a something-removed relative passed away and we ended up with an inherited used car that my sister and I shared, but we only paid for insurance and gas for it. My dad somehow saved enough to put both my sister and I through college, so I got an advantage there, no student debt weighing down my financial status for the next 30 years. So was that the key? I had a parent that was willing to “sacrifice” treats and excess and therefore I can live my middle-class life? I took a leap of faith a few years ago and walked away from a job straight into unemployment when the nation was deep in recession. God provided, but why me? Why was I able to stay relatively afloat for 9 months until I found a new job when thousands others were now homeless and couldn’t get a job interview? It only took me another year of frugalness to climb out of that relatively minor financial hole. So is that the real key, to have your generation chain truly live under your means so you can invest in yourself or your children otherwise? I still live pretty well just under my means now and am able to tythe and modestly finance outreach, but I’m not saving enough to pay for my son to go to college and I’m not sure I’d ever be able to retire.
    Yet I feel guilty for walking through Soldiers Memorial downtown or into a soup kitchen to serve with my new Target shirt, worn Kohl’s jeans, and even more worn Brook’s running shoes. Because not only did I not have to choose between eating or heat today, I had enough to buy clothes, get in a warm car, finish a day at work, and sleep in a warm bed in the privacy of my own home. And I don’t know if “they” can see past those “perks” of my life and see that I truly want to see them for who they are and to encourage and help them to become who they want to be.
    I kind of don’t know how people that have ‘premium’ lives sleep at night, I can barely do so on my modest mid-level brand lifestyle!

    • Kelley   •     Author

      Well, crap. Maybe I should feel more guilty than I do. Ugh. I *am* restless. I’m ready to rid myself of my stuff so I can use my resources for other things. Like that dang shower truck!

      I don’t know why stuff works out for some people and not others. I don’t think it’s *all* about skin color, but there’s no way that’s not *part* of it. Some of it certainly has to do with the choices we make, and some of it has to do with choices made for us by our parents, their parents, and their parents. But not everyone has the same choices available to them (which is an expanded rant I call the Myth of Equal Opportunity).

      Here’s what I do know, Cindy–it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. If you truly *see* people, they’ll know it.

      • Cindy   •  

        You want to feel proud of yourself, I worked 2 jobs, an internship, and a full load of courses simultaneously through my Bachelors. I work full time, am a “faux” single parent due to opposing work schedules, and in full load masters work almost 15 years later. But I can’t get past why I’m privileged with those “sacrifices” and why others aren’t.

        Narrowing down this term paper is going to be brutal, but maybe if I can find the right niche, this little 10 page term paper can launch some kind of determined, walking, talking, action-ing, purposeful endeavor.

  2. Dru   •  

    I’ve always wondered why some are more privileged than others also. It’s not all about race, it’s about the underprivileged. There are so many in my hometown and even my BFF that live in poverty. There used to be good paying jobs, mostly Fire Brick Plants, in the area when I was growng up. Since they closed and most kids when they graduate never come back, the small towns in the area are dying. Many that are left there are elder or are not able to move for some reason or the other. Mostly they can’t even afford to move. There is one grocery store and the prices are high. Those that can make a 20 mile ride to the closest Walmart. No clothing stores are left in town except what Dollar General has. At least 3 nearby small towns have no grocery at all and some not even a gas station.
    It just breaks my heart to see my hometown and the way my BFF along with others are having to get by. So many are hurting and no one even knows as they never complain or let anyone know. I try to help my BFF out as much as I can and she does get food stamps. I will tell you her story sometime. Seems like all her life it’s been one step forward and three steps back. Like I said though it’s not just her.
    To even get services they have to travel 26 miles to Mexico, Mo. to an office where one person is available to help with Foodstamp problems, etc. My BFF has tried. To get a government cellphone but so far has had no luck. I’ve tried calling on her home phone the last 3 days but just get a busy signal. I’m thinking her phone must be shut off.
    Now this is just her but there are plenty more in small towns and cities that are hurting. It doesn’t matter what there ethnic background is. We need to step up and help. It seems so overwhelming at times!!!!
    I wish the churches in my hometown would step up and do more but do know they are hurting also. The church I grew up in finally had to shut the doors a few years ago. That really hurt as I know all the hard work my dad and mo along with many others put into that church. At first I was bitter then I realized all that came out of that church over the years and the good that was done.

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