Sunday, August 31, 2014

Most of Us Don't Get It

I am a white man, thus I have spent most of my life in a white world.  Every school I attended until I got to college was predominantly white.  When I think back to kindergarten through sixth grade, I can barely recall two black kids throughout the experience.  Middle school (7th and 8th grade) were no better.  By the time I got to High School, I'm pretty sure there were three (3) black kids in the entire school.

There were no black people in our neighborhood until I was around eleven years old.  That was the summer that a black family - the Robinsons - moved in right behind us.  This caused quite a stir.  My mother was the only woman on our block who went over and welcomed them to the neighborhood (she brought a bundt cake), and she brought me, my brother, and my sister with her.  I can still see Mrs. Robinson's smile when my mother handed her the cake.  After that, we became friends.  Our backyards butted up against each other and we would say "hi" and chat over the bushes.  I remember one summer, the Robinson's had a big family barbecue, and they invited us over.  We were the only white people there and for the first time in my life I felt aware of my skin color.  After about three years, the Robinson's moved because of a job relocation. The day they left, Mrs. Robinson came over and hugged my mother to thank her for being so nice.  That's when it hit me that no one else seemed to talk to them while they lived behind us.  It was like there was something wrong with them.

How many white people go through life having black friends?  If you are white and live in a predominantly white community ask yourself how many black people you hang out with.  Have you ever been in a black person's house?  These are relevant questions right now and too many of the answers speak to our current state of race relations.

In a great piece from today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes how the current black/white income gap is is 40 percent greater than it was in 1967.  In addition, the average life expectancy of a black boy is five year's shorter than that of a white boy.  The net worth of of the average black household here in America is $6,314 dollars.  The net worth of the average white household: $110,500 dollars.  The US now has a worse wealth gap specific to race than South Africa during apartheid.  There's something wrong here.

Kristof also mentions a study done by The Public Religion Research Institute that states within a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one (1) black friend.  There is a disconnect between "us" and "them".  We can all sit around and pretend that it doesn't exist, but we still live in a very segregated society.  Yes, we elected a black President, but obviously we need to do more.

How are we supposed to know or understand what's wrong in our black communities when no white people are going to them?  How are we supposed to understand the differences between blacks and whites when we don't really know each other?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Would You?

I wouldn't want to be a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  I also wouldn't want to live in Ferguson, Missouri.  It (much like other predominantly black communities in the US) is mired in severe poverty, and all the subsequent nonsense that comes with it: bad schools, crime, poor health, and no sense of community.  According to the Brookings Institute, all of Ferguson's neighborhoods have over 20% living below the poverty line ($23,492.00/year for a family of four).  In addition, the unemployment rate amongst black men is 50%.  Ferguson is not alone.  Brookings also points out that in America's 100 largest metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods with more than 20% below the poverty line doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012.    That's appalling.

Most people looking at Ferguson, see a largely black community, and react by saying "It's their fault." The thing is, poverty is not an "us" or "them" issue - it's an "our" issue.  If you notice, there's a key word in the Brookings information about poverty: suburban.  It is now spilling out of our inner-cities and into the suburbs.  It's no longer just their problem.

When I taught in Newark, I would walk some of my students home into the housing project behind the school.  I can tell you from experience that once I walked into the project I could, literally, feel the tension in the air.  Mind you, this tension wasn't aimed at me or anyone else in particular.  It was just there.  People who have never set foot into an inner-city public housing project do not understand this.  Those who have do.  This tension spills out into the surrounding neighborhood and affects adults, children, business owners, and the police alike.  It is a tension that is a result of not only frustration, but lack of pride, and low sense of self.  I believe this tension is the direct result of poverty.

Poverty is not a discriminatory condition.  It does not lend itself exclusively to African-American and/or rural communities.  It does awful things to anyone it comes in contact with.  It messes with emotions, self esteem, confidence, mental health, education, physical health, and the community at large.  Ferguson is an example of a community rendered dysfunctional due to poverty.  The people who live there have no civic connection.  There is no community pride...and why would there be?  The goal is not to give back, but to get out.

Michael Brown had just graduated High School, and was getting ready to go off to college.  In one of the first interviews after her son's death, Brown's mother spoke not only of her pain over the shooting death of her son, but of how hard it was to keep her son in school and on track.  Again, unless you have spent time in a poor, urban, black community - you have no idea of where this woman is coming from.  You have no idea how difficult graduating High School is for a young black man like Michael Brown.  He was just a few years away from getting out.

Imagine waking up every morning, and wondering if you have enough money to eat.  Imagine when your kids walk to school they're almost guaranteed a beat down.  Imagine if you had no sense of who you are, what you could accomplish, or what the word potential means.  Imagine if you had experienced the shooting death of a close friend, family member...or both.  Imagine if your neighborhood looked, and felt like it had been forgotten.  Imagine if young people in your community were dying at the hands of the police, and each other.    I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there...would you?