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.