Tag Archives: racism

Reimagining Poverty Part II

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The second of our speakers series on Reimagining Poverty is tomorrow!

I’m excited to welcome Dr. Tom Shapiro to the university, and really looking forward to hearing him talk about race, poverty, and inequity.

Dr. Shapiro’s work is pretty stunning; if you haven’t read Black Wealth/White Wealth, you really should.

His scholarship exposes the extent to which differential access to institutions influences radically disparate outcomes for blacks and whites in the U.S. economy. For example, a $1.00 increase in income = a $5.00 increase in wealth for whites, but only $0.70 for blacks.

Yeah, really.

As he has said, “The genius of the American dream is the promise that those who work equally hard will reap roughly equal rewards, be it in wealth, lifestyle, or status.”

Statistics like the above make it clear that that promise is largely being broken.

Combating poverty in the U.S. absolutely requires acknowledging–and committing to dismantle–institutional racism.

That’s not a reassuring realization, certainly, but it’s a critical one, and I am glad that we’re helping to spark that conversation.

I feel like a lot of my work and, so, many of my reflections here, are converging now: the All-In Nation effort that I’ll be posting on in a few weeks, my alignment with the Kansas City Equity Profile team, my AEDI emphasis on the links between poverty and education.

So Rich, So Poor makes the point that school quality is an antipoverty strategy, not only because making sure that every child has access to a quality education will equip American children to climb out of poverty, but, more importantly from a structural perspective, because taking school quality off the table as a driver of residential choice would deconcentrate inner-city poverty and dramatically reduce racial segregation.

That could be a game changer.

If educational reform is the seminal civil rights challenge of this generation, we must redouble our efforts to examine how the institution of education is failing children and families in poverty, from preschool through their heavily-leveraged college degrees.

I hope you’ll join us tomorrow as we continue this conversation, either in person at the Kansas Union at the University, or following along on the live webstream from home.

Let’s reimagine poverty, yes, but then let’s end it, so that, by the time they grow up, it exists only in my children’s imaginations.

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Of Dreams, and Redeeming Them

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Today, obviously, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are a lot of things I thought about writing about on this day–my personal struggle with how little connection there is between the man and this day, for so many; my efforts to raise my children in the shadow of that dream (not ‘his’ dream, because it must be ours); reflections on these 50 years since the March on Washington…

But I settled on another dream, and what threatens it, and how quickly we like to forget that Dr. King spoke of not just a dream of racial equality but of economic opportunity, prosperity for all, and an end to the crushing poverty that, while certainly not equally distributed, harms all it touches.

I recently read Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, a book so discouraging, really, that I had to make myself finish it, even though it’s compelling and exhaustive and extremely well-written.

It’s a book that I hated to explain to my Sam, when he read the title and asked what it meant.

But we can’t avert our eyes, here. The evidence is clear that we are witnessing a centralization of power and an inequality of resources not unprecedented–the current ‘wage premium’ for those with at least a Bachelor’s degree mirrors the divide of the 1920s, so there is certainly historical precedent–but undeniably damaging.

The American Dream is eroding, unraveling, not just for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but, increasingly, for all but those at the top.

Regular readers will recognize that a lot of my writing these days (and more to come) has revolved around these themes: student loans and the decreasing democracy of financial aid, the need for new economic policies and approaches to restore the position of the middle class, the dangerous risk shifts that imperil economic security. I’ve been increasingly obsessed, I guess, with these social, political, and economic trends, and that spills over into what I share here.

Today’s post, then, is my effort to pull together some of the insights from Smith’s book that, in light of Dr. King’s exhortations, I see as most urgent. Tomorrow, I hope to spark some conversation about what it will take, in today’s context, to really build a movement to redeem the full vision Dr. King so presciently laid out, not just of children of different races sitting together, but of an economy that delivers dignity and hope and comfort…an American dream of real equality of opportunity, the way we have never–not in 1963 or 2014 or 1776–known.

  • There is no guarantee this ends well: We’re not just going through a tough economic cycle. We’re not just experiencing a rough patch in terms of political partisanship. As a quote cited in the prologue of the book spells out, “Civilizations die of disenchantment. If enough people doubt their society, the whole venture falls apart” (p. xi, attributed to John W. Gardner). And that’s where we are, right? My kids’ hero, Abraham Lincoln, knew that we couldn’t survive a divided nation, and we are divided today, not just ‘red/blue’ state, but rich and poor, ‘the United States works’ v. ‘there is no American dream for me’. This may not just be a phase. It may be the beginning of the end. If there is anything that should be keeping us all up at night, it is this: our nation is not destined to succeed. If we want it to, we have to make it happen.
  • It’s getting worse: I could cite statistics from virtually any page of Smith’s book that would underscore this point (which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable), but here’s one that really gets me: Between 2002-2007, the top 1% reaped 2/3 of the nation’s entire economic gains. In 2010, the first full year of the economic recovery, the top 1% captured 93% of the nation’s gains. That’s really inconceivable, in terms of the scale of the devastation it is wreaking on people’s lives, and also on people’s belief in this whole political experiment of our society.
  • These economic trends are not ‘natural’: Smith relies heavily on Germany’s experience to highlight the very different outcomes that result from different policy choices. Germany has seen a much lower unemployment rate during the recession, a much less significant loss in its manufacturing industries, and a much small growth in inequality…not because they have been subject to radically different economic cycles or forces, but because they have chosen different paths, that come with different consequences. Lest some conclude that there’s something in German ‘culture’ (or maybe the water?) that leads to greater equality, Smith also highlights outcomes from the ‘Great Compression’, a period of relative classlessness in U.S. history (post-war), when a rising tide really did lift all boats. And then he traces the policy choices that unraveled that structure.
  • We’re not handling the risk shift well: One of the points that Smith makes well is how inferior the ‘new safety net’ (largely composed of individual approaches that shift responsibility onto consumers, like 401(k)s) are, in providing for Americans’ well-being. We have to stop pretending that unequal outcomes are, somehow, equal–that it doesn’t matter how people finance college, if they just go, or that incentives to save for your own retirement are the same as being assured them. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people, and we have to stop pretending. “The burden shift has turned the traditional definition of the American Dream ‘on its ear'” (p. 89).
  • Coalitions have their limits: Social workers like to think that we can make common cause with anyone. And, indeed, we have an ethical obligation not to unduly demonize even our most ardent political opponents. But, given the increasing evidence that, today, the fates of ‘Main Street’ and Wall Street diverge, we can’t build tents so big that we’re missing the ways in which our supposed allies are working against us, or at least perpetuating systems that are.
  • We need to tell honest stories about ourselves: The American dream can’t be so vague and so distorted that it loses all meaning. But, today, that’s usually how we talk about it, because it lets us pretend that it’s still really functioning. Instead, “the view that American is the land of opportunity doesn’t entirely square with the facts” (p. 65, attributed to Isabel v. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution). Young people in the ‘old Europe’ economies of Norway, France, Germany, and Denmark, among others, have a better chance of moving up than those in the U.S. That’s not who we like to think we are.

We don’t do a great job, today, acknowledging how far we fall short of the Dream of racial integration and equality, but I would argue that we are more willing to acknowledge that failing, at least in that we identify that as a dream to which we need to continue to aspire, unlike a vision of economic equality, which we largely try to fool ourselves into thinking is just a part of our political ‘DNA’.

In other words, because we pretend that we’ve ‘got this’, when it comes to economic opportunity and equality, we don’t even really know where the goalposts are, in order to recognize how much farther we have to go.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we must start by claiming all of our dreams.

So that we can set out to live them.

Thank you gifts: Wonderful Stuff to Share

This week is my blog-a-versary, or whatever you’d call that, so today’s post is just great stuff that I want to share.

I am grateful for you, and for what you’ve allowed me to do over these past four years, and, well, I like to share cool things.

Enjoy.

  • The awesome women at MomsRising created the coolest online advocacy tool I’ve ever seen this year for Valentine’s Day. You could create a Valentine to send to your members of Congress, asking for stronger gun control laws. And, as you’ll see, you can ‘decorate’ it electronically, making it the perfect advocacy project for, say, a 30-something mom and her 4.5-year-old daughter who loves hearts and sparkles. THIS is how you do advocacy with parents, people–asking them to take 3 minutes to do something fun with their children that teaches critical messages about social change. They’re going to the top of the end-of-the-year donation list again.
  • This American Life really outdid itself with the two-part series on Harper High School in Chicago. I am, actually, a TAL fanatic, guilty of using up almost all my data minutes just for streaming TAL on my phone, but this feature on the impact of gun violence on teenagers in Chicago, and on a school in particular, was extraordinarily gripping. It provoked an extra 3 miles on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop listening. Yes, that good.
  • I get posts from epolitics delivered to my email inbox and, while I don’t often share them here, because it’s a bit beyond the niche of this blog, I’m really fascinated by the research analyzing the role of social media and online engagement in shaping how Americans do politics, today, and what that means for all of us, tomorrow. Plus, it helps me understand what wonky tech people are talking about.
  • IREHR, always good for a buzz kill. On Kansas Day this year (yes, there’s a day, people; we celebrate it in school), my good friend Lenny was asked to speak about racism and anti-Semitism in Kansas history. And that’s what makes him, and the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which he heads, so important. They remind us of the parts of ourselves we’d rather forget, so that, in remembering, we have a chance to overcome. More than a few times, he’s pointed out how a given politician I’m trying to build an alliance with is a radical with ties to white nationalism. On a road trip once, he pointed out a Christian Identity trucking company. It’s a big burden to carry, this immersion in the nasty sides of everything, but he does it for our own good. And I’m grateful.
  • The award for best email subject line ever goes to Communities Creating Opportunities’ 2013 Covenant for Families initiative, which sent me an action alert this spring titled, “Woe to those who make unjust laws.” That is an awesome use of the prophet Isaiah. Even better is what they’re doing to engage people of faith in social justice work, now across the state of Kansas, where we can use some woe-bringing.
  • Having a great state representative is pretty terrific, really. I am so glad to call Representative Barbara Bollier my elected official. She’s smart, hard-working, and not afraid to take stands on controversial issues. She’s also extremely accessible and quite selfless. Yes, there are still really good people willing to run for office. And I’m glad.

Is there anything you’d like to share, in the cause of well-wishing? The only thing better than my list of wonderful stuff is that list with yours added to it.

Horrible stuff I wouldn’t even dare to make up

I thought about, for this April Fool’s Day, making up something really awesome in the social policy world. But then I thought that would be super depressing, to find out that it was just a joke.

And, so, then I thought about making something up that’s really horrible, because that would make us feel better, right, to find out that it was a trick?

But, then I worried that I’d never be able to make up something so terrible that it would seem at all suspicious. Which was super depressing, too.

So, then I decided that I’d MUCH rather be angry than sad, about the assaults on social work values and on those we serve. So I scrolled through my email archives to find some of the horrible stuff that sounds so outlandishly awful that it should be made up, that I’ve collected over the past couple of months, for a sort of “should be April Fool’s jokes but we’re not laughing, so let’s do something about it” list.

That was too wordy a title even for me.

In no particular order, here are some completely unfunny, all-too-true examples of why social work advocacy is so needed.

No joke.

  • Tea Party group in my own state of Kansas depicts President Obama as a skunk, in an overtly racist smear. I’m grateful not only to the local NAACP chapter for speaking out on this but also for my good friends at the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, for helping us see how this connects to very worrisome trends of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric (and action) within Tea Party groups.
  • City of Topeka repeals its domestic violence law in order to avoid having to pay to prosecute misdemeanors, after the County DA announced that his office would no longer do so, in order to save money. This was really controversial, with some advocates applauding the City Council’s decision as calling the DA’s bluff, but I side with those who feel that it sent a really dangerous signal, in addition to resulting in the failure to charge at least several perpetrators whose crimes were committed during the time during which they were, essentially, not crimes. Women struggling to flee abuse should not be pawns in an intra-governmental budget showdown. Period.
  • 96-year-old African-American woman who voted even during the Jim Crow era blocked by Tennessee’s “voter ID” law. Honestly, I had hoped that I was just being paranoid about these laws being an attack on our most fundamental democratic rights. Obviously not.
  • Alabama. Enough said.

    It shouldn’t be so hard to come up with a list of totally wild things, pulled from our imaginations, that would be instantly recognizable as fabrications.

    Maybe that’s my new advocacy goal: make “ridiculous” mean something again, in the policy context.

    A year from now, I want to be foolable again.

Let’s talk about…race

*I can’t find the exact statistic, but I read in a parenting book the other day about how few white parents talk openly with their children about race. In our family, it’s a fairly frequent topic, both intentionally on our part and because my oldest son has a real interest in history, which includes slavery and the civil rights movement (his book about Ruby Bridges, who desegregated a school in Louisiana, was an early favorite). He knows that we’ll answer his questions, and he’s learning about our values, too. Talking isn’t going to end racism. But I still think it’s better than a silence that breeds complicity.

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I guess that I spend more time thinking about race and racism than most white people. Almost every time I see someone pulled over by a police officer, I hope that it’s not someone being harassed for his/her skin color. In class, I find myself thinking a lot about how I’m including the perspectives of people of color in my social commentary. I try to choose authors and blogs with an eye towards ample representation of voices of color, so that I’m not getting only ‘whitewashed’ news. And I talk about race a fair amount, with students and friends and colleagues and mentors like Lenny.

I would bet, though, that even people who don’t usually think about race much have had a hard time ignoring it over this past year. Slightly more than a year ago, an African-American man was inaugurated as our nation’s President, and people were tripping over themselves declaring that “racism is dead” or some other such clever-sounding, idealistic, and thoroughly nonsensical thing (what, “post-racist” is the new black? Or Black?”). Before the stage was even disassembled, the racist invectives, white nationalist zeal, and thinly-veiled mainstream prejudice seemed to permeate every aspect of our political institutions. It became painfully obvious that, while perhaps slightly wounded in some parts of the country and among some parts of the electorate, racism is anything but dead.

And, so, as I often do, when I am somewhat obsessed about something (my husband is probably glad I’m out of my whole Czarist Russia craze!), I started reading about race. A lot. I read about slave-owning families and the Civil War and slave labor under the Belgian colony and about Reconstruction and Marian Anderson and debt peonage in the post-Civil War South and Dixiecrats and Barry Goldwater and about racial divides in Chicago neighborhoods and the 1964 Freedom Rides and W.E.B. DuBois. I read about Obama himself, the rise of white nationalism, school segregation, anti-racist organizing, unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, and about the connection between race and immigration.

Of course none of that reading held any firm answers to the difficult questions that surround the uniquely pathological relationship that the United States has with race and racism. But I remain convinced that we all need to be a little bit obsessed with racism and its vicious and insidious nature, a little bit overwhelmed by its persistence and wickedness, a little bit maddened by its permutations and sneakiness.

And, so, in an attempt to infect others with the bug by which I was bitten after reading a white nationalist group’s email rejoicing at Obama’s election (because now it would become obvious to all of the apathetic would-be ‘racial patriots’ that Blacks have ‘stepped out of bounds’ and that a full-on ‘racial holy war’ is the only answer) and realizing that they probably WOULD see an uptick in recruitment after the inauguration, here are some of the thoughts that I have been mulling over for the past several months.

If anyone wants additional texts from the informal reading list that I pulled together for myself, just email me or leave a comment. And I’m always looking for new suggested titles, too!

It’s obvious that we can’t legislate love–meaning, in this context, that we can use social policy to regulate people’s behavior but not their attitudes. In the racial justice arena, this means that, for many, when the gains of the civil rights movement meant that African Americans and other people of color had legal claims to the same rights, whites trying to protect their privilege sought other means of social distance through which to insulate it. So, as William Julius Wilson illustrates in There Goes the Neighborhood, when schools were integrated, white families moved to other neighborhoods to keep their children from going to integrated schools. Community development initiatives become little more than dressed-up gentrification, aimed at keeping undesirable (Black) households out. As an obvious believer in the power of social policy, this is particularly vexing. How can those of us not patient enough to wait for slow ‘soul changing’ work win more secure gains in the status of people of color, as long as these techniques for avoidance thrive?

Pervasive throughout much of what I read is a kind of ‘leave it to the children’ approach, a belief that somehow racism is the exclusive purview of previous generations that will slowly die out as those cohorts do. It’s a sad and unfortunately untrue mischaracterization of the motivations for yesterday’s racism and the likelihood of improvement tomorrow. I don’t mean to suggest that we haven’t progressed as a nation within the past few decades. It is undeniable that we have. But I believe that most of that progress is attributable to the courageous and visionary agitation of people of color and their allies, not from some inexorable transcendance of racism. Far from it. At the park one day last fall, as the high school was letting out, my three-year-old asked why all of the Black kids were sitting at one table. Indeed.

Something else that has been thrashing around in my mind a lot is the nexus between class and race. Wilson quotes several Chicagolanders talking about how people of color in their own neighborhoods are ‘fine’ (read: of the same social class), but that their concerns lay with those they deemed deviant. There has been a lot of talk about how we need to learn from the lessons of the New Deal in dealing with today’s recession. And that makes me think about the rampant racial exclusions and accepted double standards that were part of the foundation of our modern social contract. How can race and class ever be untangled?

One of the best points in Wilson’s work, in my opinion, is his analysis of the ways in which the rapid demographic changes in some neighborhoods combined with the decline in traditional collective organizations as the primary mechanism through which people interact with each other. Taken together, they suggest a further decline in interracial contact–think, for example, about your Facebook friends. How often, in that realm, do you have meaningful encounters with those of other races (working together towards common goals, dealing with conflict)? Compare that to the workings of a multiracial labor union, a neighborhood group in a multiracial area, a Parent-Teacher Association in an integrated school. Will more advanced technologies give us better tools with which to excise race and racial difference from our lives?

Perhaps the most stunning sentence from my months of reading on race is this, from Slavery by Another Name: “the prolonged economic inferiority and social subjugation of African Americans that was to be ubiquitous in much of the next century was not a conclusion preordained by the traditions of antebellum slavery” (p. 85). Really, immediately post-Emancipation, there was a tremendous political and practical opportunity to reap significant gains for Blacks in the South. Tremendous. There is, perhaps, no more compelling or more tragic example of the importance of policy implementation than this–that we had a real chance to atone for the deep sin of slavery with a true reconstruction that would create equal opportunities and correct, through policy, for at least much of the harm that had been wrought. Instead, malicious exploitation and malignant neglect combined to destroy those intentions and trap people of color in law and practice that enshrined white nationalism as the operating principle of our social policy.

That same book also reaffirmed my belief in the need for a strong federal government. In today’s context of new federalism and continual denigration of ‘big government’, we can use reminders of the federal government’s decisive triumphs, particularly when it attempted vigorously to defeat racism and racists. It took World War II and the fear of having Jim Crow laws used against it by the fascists to get the U.S. government to move more aggressively to dismantle the many layers of codified discrimination that the mantra of ‘states’ rights’ had preserved.

And, finally, all of this has made me think a lot about “unpacking”–unpacking the stories that we tell ourselves to feel better (that people of color have had since slavery to get ‘caught up’), unpacking our collective responsibility for the oppression of people of color (when it’s clear it was/is systematic, widespread, and intentional, not accidental or incidental), unpacking the ways in which racism continues to injure all of us. And in this case, it’s only in unpacking that we can get somewhere.

History will see this as injustice, too

Yesterday, December 1, was the 55th anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Despite my oldest son’s obsession with her (in part, I think, because he lives in constant hope that he’ll get to ride a bus to school some day, so he gets it that boycotting bus rides is a really, really, really big deal), and the fact that I can never resist that picture, this isn’t a post about Mrs. Parks, or the role that she played in the civil rights movement, or even about that movement itself.

It’s really more of a promise broken, on my part, I guess–a promise, after I read Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s completely spot-on and utterly amazing editorial about Arizona’s racial profiling law (SB1070), that I wouldn’t write a post about it, since that really deserved to be the last word.

But the anti-immigrant atmosphere that has infected our country (and our policies, and our elections) has been foremost on my mind every single day for the past eight months or so. And when I read in The Political Brain about how campaign after campaign shows that racist candidates lose when their opponents shine a light on their racism (but prevail when they’re allowed to fly under the radar), and when I stood in solidarity with young NAACP members at a pro-immigrant protest, and when my 84-year-old grandfather-in-law pointed to a headline about Arizona and said, “they’d probably arrest me down there”…

it just has to be said: The way that we are treating immigrants in this country is wrong.

No surprise to any of you, I know.

But what really made me break my vow of silence on this is perhaps more of a revelation:

it will, I truly and fervently believe, be judged to be wrong, too.

The same way that majority opinion and public law about equality for African Americans is vastly different in the United States today (even though, quite obviously, we’ve yet to reach real racial justice) than when Mrs. Parks sat down so others could rise up, one day people in this country will look back on the actions we’re taking against immigrants today (not just Arizona, but the abuses in detention, the inhumane workplace raids, the long family separations) and think, for shame.

My friend and former Kansas state senator David Adkins said during his passionate defense of gay marriage, “I’m confident I’m standing on the right side of history,” and those of us standing up for immigrant rights today can take the same comfort. Just 6 years after he was excoriated for his courageous position, he’s being proven correct (again, it bears mentioning that the struggle continues), if not yet in our state, then with actions elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

I don’t know exactly when, or exactly how, the tide will change. But then, of course, neither did Mrs. Parks.

I still have a dream

In my Human Behavior in the macro social environment class this semester, we’re watching Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech two weeks from now, in the unit on social justice (thank you, YouTube!). I wanted to start pretty early with this idea, because I believe very strongly that talking about community organizing, group formation, and organizational development absent a context of social justice and empowerment is not just boring, it’s dangerous.

I’m looking forward to the discussion and, of course, to watching it again. But this isn’t a holiday about looking backwards, as much as that may bring us inspiration. And it’s not a holiday about sleeping in or taking a day off work. It’s about working even harder, at the things that really matter, and standing up boldly for that which is right.

For you, maybe that’s standing on the corner with an anti-war sign (like a guy I know, Marvin, often does on this day). Or maybe it’s volunteering with youth like the folks at NCCJ did for years. Or maybe it’s going to a church service or attending a vigil or registering some voters or planning for the legislative session. Whatever it is, make it about the dream. And make his dream yours.

Here it is. Happy Martin Luther King Day. Go out and DO SOMETHING about the dream.