This is the second part of my previous piece addressing the myths surrounding poverty. It’s a fairly personal account, and it’s also meant as a call to action. Please give it a read and share with others. I really do believe that much can be accomplished if we worked to a) stop shaming others for their economic circumstances, and b) spoke openly and honestly about our own economic situations. Doing so would probably lead to a lot of “soul searching” for people of all political stripes.
This is a piece I’ve been writing, speaking, and editing for about a year. Very happy to have it published:
Tomorrow I’ll be giving a talk on “Our moral Responsibility in Light of the Arab Spring,” in Jacksonville. In particular I’ll be talking about the terrible conditions of the U.S.-backed nation, Bahrain. For starters, check out this short (2 minute) video, Bahrain: One year on, then sign this quick and easy petition calling for the release of a human rights activist who was imprisoned, Nabeel Rajab.
Well the last few weeks have been eventful to say the least! I was finishing up teaching another two fantastic summer courses–always amazing students and equally engaging conversation. I also managed to work in a family reunion and two out-of-town talks.
On Sunday, July 29, I shared my perspective on the value of feminism for men with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers. This gave me the opportunity to talk about the importance of bringing gender into the public conversation about mass murders and social violence. The sad fact of the matter is that not only are most mass murders men, most perpetrators of rape, murder, arson, domestic abuse are also disproportionately men. As men continue to make violence an important component of their identity, they lose out along with the women and children around them.
The following week our family of five—soon to be six!—was off for a family reunion in Calhoun, Georgia. After a great time reconnecting with uncles, grown-up cousins, and family I hardly knew, we headed up the Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga. When we stepped out of our car onto the slopes of the church grounds we looked a lot like sea voyagers stepping on dry land after a year at sea. Can you blame us? We’re south Floridians! Anyway, we met a number of kind folks who were wonderfully receptive to my talk on stereotyping the poor. During the talk I encouraged poor people to follow in the footsteps of the gay rights movement in coming out of the closet of shame. Too many hardworking poor people feel like failures or believe they don’t deserve basic respect. This has got to change. Poor folks need to have some pride, even when those who benefit from their toil refuse to appreciate them. As I said at the close, I’m not ashamed of being poor. I’m ashamed of living in a society that tolerates poverty.
On Sunday, May 13, I drove a total of 400 miles to join the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. Augustine to give my talk, “Stereotyping the Poor: How ‘Commonsense’ thinking furthers the oppression of the poor.” The talk stimulated a number of wonderful discussions about the experiences of the poor and questions about what to do to improve the situation: lots of wonderful people; lots of brainstorming and discussion. I’ve given earlier versions of this talk in St. Pete and Orlando. It’s my small contribution to promoting a broader social dialogue about poverty. We need to listen to people discuss their experiences being poor, and we need to contrast this with what people of great means tell us about the poor.
One of the main points of my talk is that we need to deconstruct mistaken stereotypes about the poor that are as prominent as they are preposterous: the poor are necessarily lazy; they’re satisfied and living it up on poverty; most welfare recipients abuse the system and so on. We also have to understand how cultural imperialism—when a small number of powerful people speak for rather than listen to the “other”—works to divide poor people against one another: how many in control of the media seek to pit poor whites and poor people of color against one another, to prevent unification. Finally, we also need to address the mistaken notion that education is the answer to the prominence of poverty. Society needs lots of different people doing lots of different things. So long as we need yards mowed, restaurants staffed, libraries and hotels cleaned, etc., we will need people working these jobs. Too often even well meaning people excuse the denial of these economically low-end laborers’ basic dignity on account that they need to go to school and get a respectable job. This is absurd. Most respectable moral philosophies recognize that people don’t have to earn moral concern; they deserve it on account of being sentient or conscious persons. The belief that people need an education before they’re due the basic respect of being paid a living wage for the important, necessary work they do is responsible for perpetuating the oppression of the poor.
In the last couple of days I’ve read and graded upwards of 150-200 papers ranging in length from 2 to 5 pages. In my creative and critical thinking classes I ask students to write a number of papers examining fallacies in popular culture, their personal lives, news media; I also ask them to author a paper on how the course has changed some aspect of their life (thinking and/or behavior). I think I willfully forget that I will later have to read and grade them all!
So it’s usually toward the end of the semester that I begin to question my refusal to give myself over to the almighty and eternally time-saving Scantran. (Not that I don’t occasionally use them; I just don’t pretend they alone sufficiently reflect students’ attainment of the skills and knowledge necessary to be adept creative-critical thinkers.)
But every time I am reminded why devoting myself to scantrans would be a travesty: my students’ papers not only reflect that they are learning important, life-changing concepts; they inspire me; they give me hope; they prove that teachers have as much to learn as they do to teach.
I have literally lost count of the number of students who have written of epiphanies afforded by our Creative and Critical Thinking course: they’ve called into question and abolished racist stereotypes; they’ve come to question reflexive endorsement of violence as the one and only legitimate method of addressing conflict between nations; through exploring the contrast between mainstream and independent media sources they’ve come to critically interrogate media representations of their society and the globe. Perhaps most excitingly of all, these students–these intelligent, critical-thinking people–have again and again put their enlightenment into action: engaging family and friends about various ethical debates surrounding torture, going to war (with Iran), the treatment and use of animals for human consumption.
After open-mindedly examining various arguments for/against these issues and developing their own reasoned judgment, these students tell of making shirts, brochures, signing petitions, making flyers, starting discussions; others have done simple but profound actions like challenging a loved-one’s reflexive stereotyping of Arabic, black, or Hispanic people.
I strongly believe that if teachers spent more time listening to, encouraging, and yes “learning” from their students, they would be far more successful in contributing to making for a stronger democratic society.
My work, “High-Fidelity Birth Simulators in American Culture: An Ecofeminist Analysis,” has been published in the March 2012 issue of The Journal of American Culture. The work examines the increasingly common use of birth simulators to educate medical professionals about childbirth. As my work explains, I think this technique raises some serious and concerning questions.
Today I gave a talk on the value feminism holds for men at the River of Grass Unitarian Universalist church in Davie, Florida. The topic was well received by the warm, welcoming congregation. Lots of thoughtful responses including men reflecting on their experiences and identity. It’s always rewarding to succeed in sparking serious reflection and conversation on subjects such as violence against women and the socialization of boys and young men into violent models of masculinity. As for change, you never know when your contribution will be the drop that finally fills the bucket!
Adults and children, ranging in age from 3 to 8, held signs reflecting some of King’s core values, including unity and equality.
Co-organizer and Port St. Lucie resident April Nall said she decided to do something after reflecting on King’s message and the continued problem of racism.
“I felt a strong call to do something after listening to Dr. King’s speeches and connecting it to my own families’ financial situation and struggle to live more ethical lives,” said Nall, who brought her three children, ages 3, 7, and 8 to the event.
“It’s also disturbing to become aware that people of color still have to find a way to cope with oppression in our society today, more than underprivileged whites do.”
Participants also sought to remind fellow Port St. Lucie residents of some of King’s often forgotten messages.
Co-organizer and Florida Atlantic University adjunct instructor Dr. Jeffrey Nall notes that in addition to fiercely condemning racism, King died struggling to promote economic justice and nonviolence in both personal relationships and foreign policy.
“Many people don’t realize that Rev. King died a very unpopular man in many circles,” said Dr. Nall. “In his April 4, 1967 speech, ‘Beyond Vietnam,’ he expressed his strident objections to not only interracial violence but also American military violence.”
At the rally, area residents received honks of encouragement as they waved to ongoing traffic. The assortment of signs read “What would MLK do?,” “unity,” “stop racism now,” “peaceful ends through peaceful means,” and “people over profit.”
READ THE REST HERE
In his April 4, 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” King daringly levied fierce criticism of a society, he argued, that had begun to value objects over people and resort to warfare in the name of peace.
Critical of U.S. military policies Rev. King described the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also believed that U.S. budgetary priorities of increasing military spending over social programs to be an indication of America’s moral decline. King said:
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
In the speech King also addressed economic inequality. He said that America needed to “undergo a radical revolution of values.” Specifically he urged the nation to move from a “thing-oriented society,” valuing “profit motives and property rights” over people, towards a nation who fully honored the value of human life.
King’s message is as poignant and relevant as ever given the contemporary disparity between wealth and power between the rich and poor. Today the richest 400 Americans possess more wealth than the poorest 60% of U.S. Households. As confirmed by PoliticFact.com, the 2012 net worth of the Forbes 400 was $1.37 trillion dollars, while the poorest 60% of U.S. households was valued at $1.26 trillion dollars.
The 2011 Census Bureau report found that 1 in 6 Americans (46.2 million) lived in poverty in 2010, the highest rate of poverty in 50 years. A separate report found that nearly 1 in 6 Americans (almost 15%) are on food stamps.
Research shows that both people of color and young families are particularly vulnerable to poverty. A Northeastern University study found that, in 2010, 37% of young families with children were living in poverty. A disheartening number of white, non-Hispanics live in poverty, about 20 million or nearly 10%. But the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in poverty is more than twice as high. The poverty rate is 27.4% among blacks and 26.6% among Hispanics.
Indeed, King’s vision of racial equality continues to go unfulfilled for the vast majority of people of color in America. As of December 2011, unemployment rates among blacks are twice that of whites, 15.8% compared to 7.5%. Black unemployment has consistently been double that of white unemployment since the government began tracking such figures in 1972.
According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007 despite the fact whites and blacks engage in drug offenses at comparable rates.
The volatile cocktail of marginalization, poverty, unemployment, and the unfairly high rates of arrest have led to what some call a human rights crisis in the black community. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and professor of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, said that “in large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records and are the subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
 Video/Audio of “Beyond Vietnam”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qf6x9_MLD0&feature=related
 PolitiFact “Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined” http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2011/mar/10/michael-moore/michael-moore-says-400-americans-have-more-wealth-/
 Democracy Now. 14 September 2011, “U.S. Census Reports Reveals One in Six Americans Are Poor, One in Five Children Live in Poverty” http://www.democracynow.org/2011/9/14/us_census_reports_reveals_one_in
 Democracy Now. 14 September 2011, “U.S. Census Reports Reveals One in Six Americans Are Poor, One in Five Children Live in Poverty”
 CNN. 6 January 2012. “Unemployment falls…but not for blacks.” http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/06/news/economy/black_unemployment_rate/index.htm
 CNN. 6 January 2012. “Unemployment falls…”
 Human Rights Watch. 2 March 2009. “US: Drug Arrests Skewed by Race.” http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/03/02/us-drug-arrests-skewed-race ; “Decades of Disparity” (report): http://www.hrw.org/node/81105/section/2
 Democracy Now. 13 January 2012 “On Eve of MLK Day, Michelle Alexander & Randall Robinson on the Mass Incarceration of Black America” http://www.democracynow.org/2012/1/13/on_eve_of_mlk_day_michelle