For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be. A job alone is not enough. Medical insurance alone is not enough. Good housing alone is not enough. Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest. There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
The first step is to see the problems, and the first problem is the failure to see the people.
David Shipler: The Working Poor (Invisible in America)
How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?
Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed – On (Not) Getting By in America
News item: Non college graudates are seeing their job opportunites completely disappear. From Do You Have a Job? by Daniel E. Slotnik:
For many young people in America, steady work is far from guaranteed. A new study shows that only one of six high school graduates is now employed full time, and although 73 percent think they will need more education, only half say they will enroll. Are you now employed? What jobs have you had in the past? Do you think you could find work after high school, if you choose not to attend college?
In her article “More Young Americans Out of High School Are Also Out of Work,” Catherine Rampell writes:
Whatever the sob stories about recent college graduates spinning their wheels as baristas or clerks, the situation for their less-educated peers is far worse, according to a report from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University scheduled to be released on Wednesday.
Today is Urban Engagement Book Club day. Twice a month, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with social justice or poverty at this event hosted by CitySquare. This is one part of a multi-part life I am living. On one day, I present a synopsis of a best selling and challenging business book. On the next day, I present a synopsis of a book that deals with some aspect of human struggle, even human misery – books on social justice and poverty. (I also do some presentation skills training; some keynote speaking, and a few other kinds of corporate-training-like activities). I like everything that I do, and believe it is all useful to the folks that I interact with regularly. I really do want to help people get “better” at what they do.
But it is the social justice part of my schedule that probably wins the “what matters most to you?” top spot. I care about these issues deeply. I’ve read too many books; I’ve read Isaiah and Amos from the Bible. Caring about the neediest among us really is a big human deal. To fail to do so makes us a little less human.
Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
These words come from Amos 5, and here are a few of the other words that precede that famous “climax” in the chapter:
You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts…
Seek good, not evil.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts.
Caring for the poor; helping the cause of the poor; seeking and providing justice. These may not be needed all that much by those with great means. But as for the neediest… these matter a great deal. And the neediest among us seems to be a growing group at the moment.
Today’s book at the Urban Engagement Book Club is Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter. This is a book about a specific injustice, the “exploitation” of black people in Chicago. But that story has been replicated in city after city. This may be the key quote in the book:
When a seller in the black market demands exorbitant prices and onerous sales terms relative to the terms and prices available to white citizens for comparable housing, it cannot be stated that a dollar in the hands of a black man will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man.
The book is really about how people with means find ways to make a lot of money – a lot of money — off of black people without the same level of means. It is a story overflowing with racism. But there is a warning in here for all folks.
I fear that we are in for much more of this kind of exploitation. People with inadequate means is a growing demographic. High school graduates (and those who did not graduate from high school – some 23-27% of all high school students) are simply unable to find work (see the news item above). The situation is going to be increasingly dire. And this book chronicles just how adept some folks are at making a lot of money off of the exploitation of the poor. The poor black people were the victims in Chicago. And such racially charged abuse is still present in far too many places. But the plight of all types of people without adequate means is a story that I think we need to know, and give some serious thought to.
May I make a suggestion? As we read business books, and as we think about improving our own business, and getting ahead financially – let’s not forget the needy among us. And not just with an occasional charitable gift. Let’s give this issue some real attention. Consider reading an occasional book that deals with such social justice issues. (Start with the Shipler book, The Working Poor. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and this book is honest, thorough, well-written).
Could anything help our country more than for all of us to set our minds to some solutions – to help create a better set of work possibilities for those now in such need, those without that college education to rely on?
It may be that the most patriotic thing any of us can do right now is to help the under-skilled and undereducated find work.
Can we talk about racism?
At noon today, I will present my synopsis of Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women from Little Rock by David Margolick. Two weeks ago, I presented my synopsis of Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Unequal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 by Lawrence Goldstone. I did not enjoy reading either book. They are both very much worth reading, but I do not like to be reminded of, or contemplate, our horrendously offensive, wrong, shameful and destructive racist past.
For example, both books have gripping, ghastly descriptions of lynchings (two different lynchings, years and miles apart). From Inherently Unequal:
BETWEEN 1890 AND 1903, 1,889 lynchings were conducted in the United States. In 1,405 of those cases, the victims were black.
…In her pamphlet Lynch Law in Georgia, Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote, “During six weeks of the months of March and April just past  twelve colored men were lynched in Georgia … The real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that he has no rights that the law will enforce.”
Inherently Unequal is a chronicle of the legal decisions handed down by the Supreme Court that legalized “separate” everything – separate public accommodations, separate schools, separate railroad cars. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is the best known of those decisions, but there were others, all reinforcing this practice. And, make no mistake: these decisions came in an era in which white people in power not only believed, but acted on their belief, that white people were in fact better than, superior to black people. Again, from the book:
Few white Americans questioned the premise that one race predominated because it deserved to. Arguments were made that any attempt to “civilize” African-Americans would cause more problems than it solved.
The second book, Elizabeth and Hazel, is basically all narrative, centering on the incident at Little Rock Central High School in September, 1957, as the school finally carried out the decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the decision that finally overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. The two women, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery, were two teenage girls on that 1957 day. Elizabeth, trying to enter the school, and Hazel, caught in one unforgettable and utterly revealing photograph with a look and act of opposition and sheer hatred that is impossible to miss. Take a good look at the photograph:
As I read the second book, I realized again that white people do not get, and never will get, the depth and the actions and the long-lasting harm of racism. The book tells the sad story of a far-too-fragile reconciliation between two actual women, Elizabeth and Hazel. And, the book reveals just how much so many white people seek to either delude themselves, or whitewash their own racist past. Consider these lines, from the book:
Fifty years earlier, Grace Lorch had told the angry mob surrounding Elizabeth that in six months they’d all be ashamed of themselves. There was little evidence that she was right. Apart from Hazel and Mary Ann Burleson, who had apologized on Oprah, no one in the photograph or in the crowd that day or in the mob inside Central that year had ever come forward.
The Democrat-Gazette reported that the consensus among a gathering of Central graduates from fifty years earlier was that only “a handful” of students had misbehaved and that the Nine had generally been embraced. A former Central teacher insisted that the press had exaggerated what had been “routine misbehavior.” …A handful of students did stand apart, she agreed: the handful who had treated the black students like human beings. Among the nine of them, she speculated, they had encountered maybe five whites who fit that description.
“I was very dismayed when I read in yesterday’s paper that the student body ‘welcomed us.’ I didn’t feel it,” (Said Elizabeth). “I know the difference between an apology and someone who is just trying to make themselves feel good,” she said. “If you can’t name what you did, it’s not an apology.”
So… can we talk about racism? If you think that racism was not real, wide-spread, ugly, destructive, and lastingly harmful to this country, you have some reading to do. And, if you think racism has been conquered fully, well… let me just tell you one sad very recent story that proves it hasn’t.
After the death of Whitney Houston, the ugly, hateful racist hatred came through again. On the open comments thread of one prominent news site, there were countless comments that in one way or another stated that Houston was “n” trash. The site had successfully found ways to filter out comments that actually used the “n” word, so the people leaving these comments intentionally misspelled the word to get around the filter. The racism was absolutely dripping.
We could describe so many other very current stories of still-ever-present racism — including policy decisions that really do reveal racism underlying the decisions. Juan Williams, so eloquent in his work on Eyes on the Prize, describes the use of code words used to replace/hide “overt” racism. But the code words reveal plenty. Of course, any such accusation is always rejected by those using such “code words,” just as the white people of Little Rock “insisted that the press had exaggerated what had been ‘routine misbehavior.’”
But…don’t be deceived – and don’t deceive yourself.
The Goldstone book is the more academic of the two, but still has enough stories of horrible actions by white people against African Americans to move any thinking and feeling person to shame and sadness. The book Elizabeth and Hazel is practically all narrative. I would like to encourage you to put it on your reading list. It really is a story that reveals the depth and the enduring nature of this enduring problem.
Here is a review of Elizabeth and Hazel, Blacks, Whites, and Grays by Louis P. Masur, that says that it is a much more honest look at race relations than the popular The Help. Here’s the concluding paragraph of this review:
Elizabeth and Hazel serves to explode the simplifications of The Help and exposes the limits of apology and forgiveness. There is nothing about which to feel upbeat, no easy moral, no simple narrative. The story is a corrective to our collective fantasy that we can rectify the past. The moment captured on September 4, 1957, was grotesque and irredeemable. It still is.
And here is a pointed paragraph from the review Elusive Empathy: David Margolick’s Book “Elizabeth and Hazel” Shows Why We Still Can’t Just Get Along by Michael Henry Adams:
Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery are proxies for two Americas, one black and one white, one still scarred by the past, the other eager to, at last, leave the past behind; indifferent to ‘yesterday’s’ social ills and hell-bent on preventing reverse discrimination now. Their intertwined story in Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, is a vivid illustration of how, so many well-intentioned efforts to the contrary, fear and misunderstanding continue to trump even our common humanity.
As I have described many times on this blog, I speak regularly to some rather diverse audiences. I present synopses of business books to a wide array of business audiences. But I also present synopses of books on social justice, poverty, and “nonprofit” issues. Twice a month, I speak to the Urban Engagement Book Club sponsored by CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries). Usually, these are the books I read that stop me in my tracks. These two books certainly did.
I teach Speech Communication. One of the subjects we dwell on is “ethnocentrism.” It is a fancy, academic word, that basically means “I think that my group is better than your group, so I will focus on my group and, in some way or another, think less of your group.” There are a lot of variations of this “my group is better than your group” thinking, including gender bias, age bias, and, of course, racial bias.
And bias is the springboard for prejudice, and then discrimination – and then, sadly, verbal mistreatment, and even physical violence.
And, yes, sadly, racism is still a major problem in our society.
There are big society-wide initiatives that we need to take, and re-emphasize over and over again to combat this evil. But the diversity battles might just be won one incident at a time, in your workplace — in every workplace. And they have to be won by people who stand up and say “no!”
I thought of this as I heard the terrific interview on Fresh Air with Walton Goggins, who plays Boyd Crowder on Justified. (It’s starting back up – one of my favorite shows). Boyd Crowder is a backwoods, blunt, rough character. Here’s what Walton Goggins said about how he was willing, and not willing, to play the character.
You know, I’ve made four Southern movies. I’ve been in quite a few Southern films. And initially, when this was sent to me, I wasn’t interested in playing another Southern guy labeled as a racist.
You know, I think racism is a problem throughout our country, and it’s not confined to those states below the Mason-Dixon line. And for me, I did not want to perpetuate a stereotype. So I had them take out references to our president, Barack Obama, and I wouldn’t say the N-word, and I said I would do this if Raylan was able to point out that Boyd doesn’t necessarily believe that which he is saying, and that was very important to me.
“So I had them take it out.” I wouldn’t do it! This is the front-line in tackling discrimination and divisive stereotypes. Good for Walton Goggins.
And, for all of us, what can we do to stand up for diversity, for acceptance? The workplace will be a better place for us all if we take this challenge seriously.
You can listen to the interview with Walton Goggins, and read the transcript, here.