There are many perspectives from which to critique Don Lemon, et als, defense of White, Middle Class Supremacy over the behaviors, dress, language of poor Black youth. The other day, I talked about how White Supremacy narratives supported by Prominent Black Men helps to further embolden White Supremacy myths within White culture (and how that in turn hurts us all, sans the elite). This is in addition to critiques by Black people about how White people never speak out against White-on-White violence or those riotous teens or just how Lemon, Cosby, et al are missing the whole point or how this discourse lacks self-reflection in its blaming. It also recalls, as did talk about what Trayvon was wearing and how he was “welcoming” being targeted by GZ, parallels with Rape Culture and the Christian Purity movement. I want to focus now on the class issue at this time, though, and particularly how Lemon’s idea parallels with the Culture of Poverty Culture – the culturally embedded idea with Middle Class people that Working Class and impoverished people have bad values that perpetuate their poverty.
The idea that Working Class and other poor people remain poor because of their own mindset and values is called the Culture of Poverty, which began when sociologist Oscar Lewis spent time with a poor family in Brazil and couldn’t understand why they didn’t just pull up their bootstraps, grease their elbows, put on a smile and ride the gravy train out of their shantytown. Patrick Daniel Moynihan, that bastion of liberalism himself in the liberal LBJ administration, helped to popularize this idea of an enmeshed “tangle of pathology” that kept poor people – and particularly poor POC – thinking and acting poor and, therefore, kept them entrapped in poverty. To conservatives and liberals alike, the poor are deficient in their thinking, and that is why they are poor. More recently and more into the mainstream of American, and particularly White American, roots, this CoP Culture has infected classrooms through curriculum for teachers – most from middle class backgrounds and unfamiliar with the culture shock they encounter in the classroom – by hack researcher Ruby Payne and her A Framework for Understanding Poverty.
According to the CoP, poor people are poor because of unwise financial decisions. But research shows that everybody makes unwise financial decisions and that wealthy, highly educated people make the same kinds of decisions in similar situations. Go and read that article, actually. All of it. Poor people’s poor decisions are compounded both by stress of having little money in the first place, by being distracted by the stress of poverty, and by having little-to-no margin of error, things that wealthier people do not need to worry about – certainly not to the level that poor people do. I can plan to budget $25 for the entire week, but what happens when I need to get across town for a meeting and I have to fill up the car or the transit card? Or I need a pack of pens and eat out once, even if it’s from the Dollar Menu? What happens when – as happened this last week to me – I plan the forty dollars of usable money in the bank to last until the next paycheck, but two unexpected automatic payments of ten dollars a piece come and surprise me out of nowhere? What happens when the eggs go bad, or my daughter is hungry and I’ve got no food at home? What happens to the family needing to fix their car and is given a choice between getting the car short-term fixed for $250 or long-term fixed for $2,500? What is happening in their minds when they are cognizant of the fact that they only make $20,000 a year and almost all of that is going towards the most basic expenses? There is no savings because there is nothing to save. They can barely think of spending one week’s paycheck without panicking, so blowing ten percent of the entire year’s budget when there is 80 bucks in the bank (if they’re lucky), is unfathomable. Hell, just the thought of spending triple figures on an emergency is beyond the pale. The poor are not poor because of unwise financial decisions; poverty increases to a debilitating level the effects and occurrence of making bad economic choices.
According to the CoP, poverty parents aren’t concerned about the children’s education. An example would be when my daughter’s summer camp program received backpacks and school supplies as an act of charity from a major retailer. The summer camp predominately consists of POC and children at or near poverty. Each of the backpacks came with a note from somebody in the organization. The one for my daughter read, “Make your family proud. Prove to them you are better than they think you are. You can do this by bringing home good grades.” It is a ridiculous assumption, that parents of poor children do not expect much scholastically out of their own children, and it sets up teachers against parents. Yet it is widespread and fairly common among teachers and other middle class people. Poor parents care as much as wealthy parents about their children’s education, with all the various levels of involvement as you find in middle class and upper-class families – when those levels of involvement are possible. For one to think that poor parents do not care about education is to demonstrate one has never spent time in poor people’s houses. Generally speaking, working class families are at several disadvantages here, starting with time, energy, loss of concentration due to poverty and issues related to poverty. Within CoP discourse, there is little mention of the massive disinvestment in the education of poor people. There is little mention of how working class white and non-white schools are designed to operate more like factories than the creative endeavors that their rich counterparts enter into. Little about how the stress of everyday poorness affects the concentration and behavior (and health) of poor people, let alone food insecurity and how diets high in junk and processed foods (iow, what poor people can afford!) affects the concentration and mood of students.
According to the CoP, poor people’s attitudes towards work keeps them from being promoted. First off: Promoted to what?? Capitalist systems bottleneck the poor so that the only jobs beyond entry-level for most are as managers of entry-level positions. Most can’t move beyond that, even if they were managerial. Even if they were all awesome and perfect, there are only so many manager jobs and the rest are, in this economic situation, left to fight over the scraps. What the middle class person can’t figure is how hard these entry-level, slave-labor jobs can be. But if all working class people are supposed to act grateful and happy for every chance to put together a Happy Meal or every table ever waited on, or for the opportunity to fold and put back every garment dropped by a sloppy customer – there is no human being that chirpy and no one should be forced to be. Add in the indignities that are forced upon entry-level employees but never, ever considered for executives – corporate uniforms, drug tests (both the act of pissing in a cup and the question of chemical ingestion never asked about the upper class who use as much as any other intersection), lack of paid sick or vacation time, poor treatment by customers and supervisors for slight mistakes or oversights (or for nothing at all), lack of health care options – and what is there to be in a positive mood about?
According to the CoP, poor people can’t speak properly. Every semester that I teach and a good portion of the tutoring sessions I have, I remind my students that there is nothing wrong with the way they talk at home – that maybe the mechanics for the way they write may be off, but their speech isn’t inferior. And that idea makes some people upset – particularly the Culture of Poverty people. CoP is nothing more than empiricism of Middle and Upper Class cultural values onto the Working Class, and culture is not culture if it is not intrinsically language and language usage. Schools are modeled to make the regional dialect of poor people more palatable to the ears of those who fancy themselves the normative. Which isn’t to say that I give my students no hope. Rather, we recognize that language usage provides access to power and opportunities, so we enhance our code-switching – something that is normal and natural for most people. Most people speak and act in different ways towards different means and in different contexts. In our writing classes, we learn how to improve what is considered American Standard English. Notice the term “Standard”. Even though it’s largely understood by linguists as not the “correct” form of English in the US, it is still seen as the normative tongue. Therefore the common speech in Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods or Loredo, TX, or in Appalachia is still considered improper. In fact, any regional dialect or accent not deemed normative or upper-class is assumed in the popular imagination to be the mark of an uneducated, unintelligent person. This is the epitome of the Culture of Poverty Culture – the poor are blamed for being born into their realities and for having cultures that do not align with a certain way of thinking. CoP Apologists like Ruby Payne tell middle class educators of poor students that their students will always be poor if they do not give up their friends or family, their community and culture, their language and identity. The blame is placed on the very existence of people in poverty, rather than the structures – such as culture and language policing – that regularly and overwhelmingly keep people in poverty.
We need to say this again and again: it isn’t comfortable being in poverty, and living in high-poverty areas – particularly disinvested ones with high dropout rates (that being related to how schools function as, despite the best intentions by school staff and administrators, as retention centers in high-poverty/working class areas, particularly in segregated Black USian neighborhoods), high-density poverty, few living wage jobs, with high rates of violence – exponentially expounds the stress, creating neighborhoods full of PTSD survivors who are not paid by the US military nor have the resources to clinically care for their mental stress – who do not have the advantage of time and money that wealthier people do.
But nobody talks about that. White middle class people, particularly, expect poor people to pick up their mores and values and mannerisms with the dangling carrot that the poor can then be accepted into their clubs. It’s more colonialism, “We accept you but only as extensions of ourselves because we can only truly accept ourselves.” This idea is perpetuated throughout by cultural signifiers and iconography – in language, on television and mass media, in dinner and cafe conversations about the “Problem of Poor People,” in public policy.
This isn’t a problem of poor people; it’s a problem of wealthy people and a problem for poor people.