Bootstraps & Assets: Three (Post) Evangelical Views on the Poverty of the Poor

In my experience with (Post) Evangelicalism, there are three basic models for dealing with poverty and poor people (though most experience some overlap).

The loudest-  though probably not the most widespread – we can refer to as the Dave Ramsey School of Thought: People in the US are in poverty because they choose to be. They are lazy, bereft of character, are without industry and resourcefulness. Poor people basically deserve to be poor. I mean, they can’t even bother to take one of Dave Ramsey’s $200 Seminars on Saving Money and Becoming a Success by the age of 60™!

The above view is deplorable, despicable and ultimately has no redeemable value whatsoever. It’s a Ponzi Scheme for greedy would-be condo developers – the sorts of people who run around twirling their mustaches while tying up their tenants to the train tracks just because.

But its real deviousness lies with how it views and thus affects poor people. According to the DRSoT, we aren’t fully human – we are leeches, drains on society. We are not survivors, we are here to suck up at the sweet teat of Mama Gubmint and drink more cavity juice from Uncle Sugar. We are not resourceful – except for learning how to extract those sweet liquids of public assistance and we exist merely to be tormentors of good old American Republicans. The effects of this kind of thinking leads to the Tea Party, which leads to a continued Starving Out the Poors aggressive campaign*. These are the people who brag about cutting food stamps; these are the school administrators who take away kids’ lunches in front of their peers because their parents didn’t pay their debts (for a public school). These people inflict real harm into the lives of the poor and inflict damage to Jesus’ Body.

The second model isn’t quite as insidious – in fact, it’s innocuous. And therein lies the problem. For this model is much more widespread than believed. If the first view is that of Rush Limbaugh, this is the view of the common person in (Post) Evangelicalism. And it seems so benign, so well-intentioned. Which makes sense. Most people aren’t villains and have little aspirations of being a Master Capitalist or even a banker.

However, White Evangelicalism is still problematic and these problems can remain with those who leave Evangelicalism and yet have not had the space or resources to fully wrestle with how Evangelicalism and White Privilege make us think about Whiteness, about class struggles, about justice and work. We tend to think of our neighbors, when we do, as decent people and we can move our imaginations a bit to see ourselves in their shoes. We don’t have to know poor people to feel some pity for them and to believe that they may not be the people who directly do their own damage.

And this is where Ruby Payne’s Culture of Poverty rubric comes from. It is exhibited prominently this week in a guest post at Rachel Held Evans. While the author takes pains to remind readers that people in poverty are not the main ones to blame for their own poverty or conditions, she also tips the scales in a way that, frankly, gives me pause. What Culture of Poverty teaches is that poor people are different (read: inferior) to middle class people and must be studied through a framework that is overwhelmingly middle class but lacking in critical theory or social sciences. One can find good truths through observation and being near – but strong assumptions still remain from an outsider perspective and prescriptions are also given from that outsider perspective. There is still a reluctance to grapple with underlying systemic factors that contribute to high- and generational-poverty. 

To be sure, Amanda Opelt has some necessary insight for her (mostly) middle class white American Christian readers.

 I did the math and found that someone working full time at the current minimum wage (assuming they had paid sick days) would only make $15,080 a year.

In most places, that is not enough for a family of two, let alone three, to live on adequately. And that’s assuming paid sick days and a full schedule. And…

But for the low-income women I worked with, their lives were a perpetual house of cards.  They had no resources, no safety nets to keep them from going under.  One step forward, two steps back.

Ms. Opalt outlines – based on experience working in inner city Nashville – the trap that poverty is. Without a system of on-ground, replenishing, available and familiar safety nets (family to loan a few hundred dollars during a pinch; a few thousand in savings just in case) and cushions, poor people often have to rely on payday loans with exorbitant rates (I speak from experience having just missed this appointment due to the saving grace of having a family member in a place to help me pay rent this month), or pay more for upkeep and maintenance of crappy-but-necessary vehicles, or use day-to-day bus passes rather than cheaper monthly passes, or pay fees to restore the gas and lights because they couldn’t afford to pay their bills until tax returns, or stay at motels because of bad credit, or spend precious few dollars on a temporary escape that most middle class people take for granted. These survival mechanisms cost more money than stabler families and individuals have to spend for more stable and superior services.

So Ms. Opelt is correct in pointing this trap out and then giving some all-too-real cases of how this affects real live people. Poverty is like Mordor – you don’t fancy yourself just walking out.

But the sentence preceding this excerpt points to a problem with this worldview, one that many White Americans believe despite its vast ugly untruth reasserting itself on a daily, institutional level.

Abuse, racism, corruption; we all experience these hardships to a varying degree. [emphases mine]

While we may all be familiar to some level – however minute or overwhelming- with abuse and corruption, White people in a post-colonial world are not targets of racism. Something we must always remember: White colonists, elites and slave traders invented and whites of all socioeconomic statuses implemented and operate the social construct of racism. The express purpose of racism is to create and perpetually maintain a permanent underclass and to continue to divide the lower classes to keep us from organizing and revolting.

Racism as it is directed at non-White people is a tool to maintain poverty. Claiming that all people face racism not only  belittles actual, systemic racism that happens to People of Color, but itself furthers the hold of systemic poverty. Which brings us to another criticism of the Culture of Poverty: there is little societal, systemic analysis of the why’s to poverty. Ms. Opelt’s piece highlights this inconsistency by noting that “the playing field is not always level and not everyone was born with bootstraps.” The bootstraps myth is a tape in conservative America about self-reliance – but it’s mostly about neglect of community and social-political responsibility.

Which isn’t to say that Opelt and Culture of Poverty adherents shirk responsibility for the poor on an individual basis. Like Opelt, they tend to be generous and voluntary, working as teachers in underresourced urban and rural schools, as social workers, working for non for profits, helping out in the inner city’s soup kitchen on the weekends. Many tend to put their money where their mouths are – but there is the complication that they look at the field of the work and only see the value of rescuing individual strangers on the road to Emmaus. They refuse to – for socio-theological reasons – acknowledge the existence of systemic evil. And they see social programs of uplift as being naive and intrusive at best, responsible for poverty at worst.

But perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of the Culture of Poverty view is how it belittles the lives and communities of poor folk.

What I learned in the inner city is that to be caught in the cycle of generational poverty is to experience a bankruptcy of spirit, a deficit of hope.  It is poverty of education, community, safety, health, and spiritual guidance.

The problem here isn’t so much that poor people are turned into adversaries in this scenario – instead, we are objects to be pitied – emphasis on the objects. We are removed of our own experiences and thoughts and agency. Heck, even our communities and spirituality are labeled “impoverished.” We are infantilized and, in the Culture of Poverty Culture, can’t do anything without White Middle Class America stepping in to rescue us.

While on the face of it, because the Ruby Payne method lacks the antagonism of the Dave Ramsey method, we tend to think of purveyors of this model to be on the side of those in poverty. It is certainly better than the DRM. But, as my friend and unofficial mentor Don Washington likes to say, remember that better is not the same as good. And erasing people’s agency while belittling their communities and spirituality is not good.

Image: Female protester wearing a sign that says, "You are NOT powerless." Black & white imagery

Image: Female protester wearing a sign that says, “You are NOT powerless.” Black & white imagery

To contrast, I think Christian Community Development Association shows a way forward at least for Evangelicals and a more healthy way of connecting with under-resourced communities and people.

CCDA, a coalition of Evangelical churches and community-based NFPs – believes in incarnational ministry and asset-based community development. The idea is that White Middle Class people can come live with poorer neighbors not as leaders but as neighbors. Often divested neighborhoods will have helicopter drops where outsiders will bring in resources regardless of what is happening and needed in the community. Rather, what we need are efforts to address lack of community resources through acknowledging what the community has, what it knows, and what it knows it needs. If White Evangelicals want to make remarks about how impoverished our community relationships are, I’d like them to live as neighbors and see how strong our communities are, how we come together and celebrate with each other and pitch in at times of need. And I’d like them to do this for years and years before they claim to know what we live with.

There are ways to treat poor people as fully human – as beings made in the image of God. Our communities and spirituality aren’t bankrupt – our checking accounts are missing or perilously low.

———————————-

*This campaign can and should be defeated, but enough Americans will both have to awaken their conscience to vote against it and demand full equality for all. We need a moral education.

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“Rising Property Values” = “Pushing Out Blacks”

The front page story on the daily Chicago rag The RedEye, “Taming the Bloomingdale Trail” is a feature on a long, thin park in the making, developed from unused railroad tracks running through newly gentrified and soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhoods here. And it’s sad that such great things are coming here, because the way that Chicago works, investment in the neighborhoods (like art spaces in my Logan Square or improved public schools) means higher property values.

And higher property values means mass displacement of poor folks – usually Black and Brown people.

Displacement is usually couched in terms of “improving the neighborhood.” And that depends on what one means when one says “improving.” There are other ways to reduce crime and living conditions that do not rely on kicking out Black and Latino residents. But those aren’t as glamorous, and they are investment heavy, with little going back into the banks and coffers of White investors –  investors who specifically profit from Black, Brown and Poor poverty.

House of Quality - 900 W Randolph

So investing in arts and parks is kinda expensive. But like investing in condos or privatizing schools, they know they’ll get their money back with interest.

The median family income for a family or four in the Chicagoland area is $70,500.”

Often, what passes for “affordable housing” in Chicago is targeted toward this manufactured “median”, comprised of pitting extremely rich and middle class  neighborhoods and suburbs against poor neighborhoods, rather than basing it on those who need affordability the most. Consistently, poor people lose when forced to go to battle with the wealthy on the terms of the rich. 

In the region, there are over 740,000 households with incomes at or below $35,000.”

For them, affordable housing that operates under the assumption that $70,500 is the normal income and if affordable means 1/3-1/2 of that spent on rent and utilities means they are displaced. This is the evil of gentrification in one form. The school closings and defundings; the shootings and murders placed in fluxed regions heavy with post-displacement people; the lack of investment; the secrecy of operations in City Hall; the silent white churches; the compliant white renters who talk favorably about rising property value; the white land developers who purposefully use dirty tricks to kick out black and brown businesses, renters, and landowners in fashionable (or soon to be fashionable) neighborhoods – these are direct effects of gentrification. They are only as distant from gentrification in the sense that the gentrifiers can erect protective walls to deny the evil effects of what gentrification does.

Here’s a game, White Chicagoans. Every time you hear someone talking about “Rising property values” think “Pushing out the blacks.”

Every time you hear the phrase, “This neighborhood has improved” add the voice, “Since we moved the Blacks and the Mexicans out.”

Because that’s what those phrases mean. Just be honest about the passive and active racism of White Supremacy. And if it hurts to think of it in those terms, think how much the effects of displacement and apartheid hurts.

Here’s another game: Invest in neighborhoods of color, in local businesses of color as much as possible. Then more people win.

Don Lemon, Baggy Pants, and The Culture of Poverty Culture, pt 2

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.

a room full of ideas

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.

Don Lemon, Baggy Pants, and The Culture of Poverty Culture, pt 1

So Don Lemon and several other prominent upper-middle class Black people have used their privileged platforms to accuse working class Black people of acting in a way that keeps them in poverty and keeps them suspect. I’m white, so my voice in this inner-dialog is limited, and I’ll leave that up to much more competent critics, like Jay Smooth and Black Twitter. But I do have some stuff to say 1) as to how far the anti-baggy-pants logic reaches a White audience that uses its logic and arguments as further justification for oppressive White Supremacy policies and practices, and 2) the rhetoric used by the Lemons and Cosby’s, et al, is another variation on the Culture of Poverty line of reasoning put upon all poor people. Today, we’ll investigate the first point, the acceptability of White Supremacy in White communities. In a couple days, we’ll look more closely at the Culture of Poverty myth.

Little background: Don Lemon is a Black CNN personality who recently came out on his show to denounce young Black men for wearing saggy, baggy pants (and, of course, we all hate that, right? What thinking adult feels comfortable around it?) and for littering, and then brings in the inaccurate trope of 72% of African American children being born out of wedlock. These were all being thrown around as reasons why Bill O’Reilly is right, that Black people are basically holding themselves back. The fact that White youth are always involved in their own disgusting-to-adults, counter-culture habits (I had, I swear to Abba, a “reverse mohawk” when I was fourteen as my own way of rebelling against the dominant culture. But I think mostly because I just hated my hair at the time), that litter is prevalent in any throw-away, mass-consumption culture, that so many children being born out of wedlock is a symptom of poverty, not a cause. No, this is a sign to White Supremacy: Jump on board! Black men attacking black men means pile on!

What happens is first, nice, Black-friendly White person says, “Oh, finally!! This man says it!” Because that’s what the White person was thinking, consciously or unconciously, but didn’t feel was his place to speak on. This is a subtle effect of White Supremacy and White Privilege: white people like myself can think, “That particular action is disgusting and it’s no wonder why so many Black men and women are held back in society. They got too many babies/wear their pants too low/talk sloppy.” If we’re completely honest, we White people unconsciously take this negative, false anti-Black crap in because it’s part of our culture. If we’re decent and thinking, we wrestle it and confront it within ourselves and we listen to the data and the evidence and our friends of color about how these widely-accepted thoughts are false.

But often, no matter how we feel about it, we don’t talk about it because it’s not acceptable, it’s not politically correct and we don’t want to be shamed in public. As soon as a Prominent and Successful Member of Black Society vocalizes the White Supremacy myth, the shame barrier is gone and White people don’t know what to do with ourselves. Some of us have been itching to talk about how poorly The Blacks are behaving and performing in public so long, it just hurts to get it out all there at once.  And so they blurt about how The Black Community (because it’s all a monolith, right?) has 120% out-of-wedlock child bearing and how all the mens are in prison or how all the kids are gangbanging all because they don’t have any personal responsibility and don’t have the nerve to speak out against their own. So, FINALLY someone says it – but of course doesn’t go far enough. White people, White people say, are tired of dealing with the problems of Black people that, incidentally, White people have no responsibility in.

In this old narrative, there is no questioning of a society that allows for so much unchecked institutional racism that defunds and shuts down Black and Brown schools, divests in communities of color, vastly underpays both women and people of color (and particularly women of color), disproportionately imprisons Black and Brown men, redlines and segregates POC only to later displace them according to the whims of White landowners, targets and kills and then blames Black victims for their clothing or place or for their existence. This is not even encountering the psychological warfare waged upon Black people that tells them that their color signifies danger, signifies threat, signifies a lack of intelligence, cognizance, ability, work ethic. These forms of evil iconography are passed through pop culture and media down from the slave holders’ preachers through blackface and minstrel shows and the various limitations allowed for Black creatives on national television and radio (all of which is sometimes directly interrogated by Black artists, often not so directly but perceptively. But yet the popular perceptions dull on). White Supremacy is the law of the Land, and until White People stop giving into the narrative that White people are somehow better than non-whites and stop lying about the violence we commit to black society, black economics, and the black psyche, all the in-house discussions triggered by jack-ass racists like Bill O’Reilly are merely dangerous blame-shifters.

Logic like Lemon’s gives the racists more unchecked ammunition and gives the corporate-government hybrid behemoths full room to keep moving the goalposts.

Dress and linguistics are cultural. Culture is not a limitation – racism, classism, sexism are.

The Old White Boys Club is.

Top Hat & Tails

The oppression of White Supremacy should be alarming to White people, whether poor or middle class because, again, POC are the permanent underclass of Western society and are used to distract White rage from the injustice being perpetuated upon White people. Poor white folks, particularly, tend to blame their problems on Black and Brown people and so are instrumental in political and economic disenfranchisement of POC. This is ironic, for as much as White people fight against POC and further marginalize them, we move the goalposts for what is acceptable behavior to be done to poor white folk, too. And by moving that goalpost, we are also tearing into the assumed acceptable securities and rights for the rest of the 99% of White USAmericans as well.

In other words, even if you’re a selfish racist, you should be concerned that the very racist practices, methods, ideologies, practices, patterns, imagery, iconography, and rhetoric used to further marginalize Black Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos/Latin American immigrants will come back to haunt you as you find that having a refrigerator is just too good a luxury to be given to poor people, and having a functioning house that you can make payments on to own is too much goodness for middle class folks. After all, we just can’t afford it all, what with things being so hard for the corporatocrats running the world right now.

Not Sacrifice and Suffering, but Mercy and Justice

North Park Professor and author Soong-Chan Rah has a brilliant observation about a distinction between White, middle class churches and churches of color. Middle class churches tend to earnestly sing songs about lack, about need. About hunger and thirst. Churches of color, however,  tend to sing about joy and hope and even happiness. This is a reason why Black Gospel music is so much better than White, CCM-based praise and worship music.*

I thought about this trend shortly after reading Rod of Political Jesus’ blog on White God, suffering ,and Christian atheism. It’s an important piece and should be required reading because he highlights the injustice-masking of sanctified suffering.

White middle-class churches sing songs and preach sermons about suffering as a type of longing. They will esoterically talk about the cross and fasting and other forms of suffering as if these are otherworldly experiences, as if they are situations they want to reach – but not for long – and the end-game of spiritual nirvana (on the way to an otherworldly, out-of-body heaven, that is). There is this cornerstone of the very non-Jewish, non-embodied, non-Jesus Greek philosophy of Gnosticism that lingers in Christianity: the flesh is evil and needs to be put into submission and done away with. This stands in stark contrast to the God who put upon flesh to be one of us.

Poor white people may sing songs of suffering, but my experience is that we’re not singing them with any sort of spark in our eye. When we sing songs of suffering and hunger, we are speaking of experience, not romanticism. Yet I also feel we’re told through middle- and upper-class expectation that we need to be content with that suffering. Suffering is a good thing – for those who haven’t been subjected to oppression. When one can choose to explicitly fast, one can usually afford to plan the day or week around that. That’s a different animal than constantly worrying about your kid’s next meal or praying you won’t get stranded across town because your bus ticket doesn’t have any money left in it or stopping short of crying because you can afford the slightest minor derailment from the $25 you have for the week and yet here you are.

Holy Blossom

There’s quite a distinction between choosing to live on a food stamp budget for a week and being forced through poverty to live on a food stamp budget. Between helping volunteer at a soup kitchen, snapping pictures and telling stories about it versus being the one who endures the humility of being told that “beggars can’t be choosers”*and telling others where the best place to eat, sleep and find clothes or work is (or deciding to hide that information).

I sometimes hear from Evangelicals that being poor is being near the heart of God. And generally, I agree with that statement. It’s certainly a step up from the middle class conservative approach that blames the poor for their problems. But I’ve also seen It used as an excuse to pardon and not seek injustice: Why do the poor need food stamps or living wages if being poor means they are closer to the heart of God?

The poor don’t quite feel the same about being poor as those who gaze upon us with a sacred jealousy.

I prefer what Latin American Liberation Theology says instead: God has a preferential treatment for the poor. Which is to say that the institutional and ecclesiastical body of God is to prefer the poor by acting with it and – as an extension – decisively pursuing justice and mercy with and for the poor.

But it is in considering the story of the widow and her mite where I come to grips with Jesus and the prophets shakedown of the religious elites: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. From Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (vv41-44. NIV)

When I was taught this story, everytime Jesus praises the widow for her sacrifice. Yet he doesn’t. Jesus situates himself as an observer of people (some spiritual people focus on the inside, others on social interactions, many on both. I tend to resonate with the social observations) and highlights a practical, regular, ordinary, but hidden injustice. Contrary to depictions of this scene in movies like The Jesus Film, Jesus doesn’t rush out to praise her. Neither does he condemn her. It’s rather a condemnation on the system of wealth extraction that goes on in the temple.

Let’s use the example of tithing, as an example. Say two people go to the same church. One is a single mother who gets by on $250 a week. The other is a financier who makes ten times as much. Both are pressured to give ten percent of their income (before taxes) to the church. Both feel an obligation to do so. Each week, the mother gives $25 to the church, and has 225 left for taxes, transportation, rent, food, utilities, insurance, and perhaps some emergency jar. Each week, the banker gives away $250. He looks like he’s giving away a fortune in comparison, right? But that’s only part of the story. Because the mother is giving away much-needed money, she is encouraged that her action it is one of sacrifice, an act of penance and repayment perhaps. The $250 is not much of an actual sacrifice for the financier – it just means less-expensive nice things. Yet it’s still touted as a sacrifice. The additional suffering that the woman is going through is sanctioned through the teachings of the church – her real reward is in heaven, etc.

The church does not see it as its obligation to practice mercy upon the mother, but demand further sacrifice of her. If it were to practice mercy, it would take the offering of the rich and distribute it to the poor.

Sacrifice privileges those with much to lose and still much left over. But when we ask, guilt, or push the already marginalized to further marginalize themselves, do we not see it for the sin we are committing? Jesus did. And later calls them out for it.

I desire mercy. Not sacrifice.

I fear this sanctification of suffering is why we do not fight for mercy and justice for the poor. We believe they are better off with sacrifice (or rather, they are better off being sacrificed). So middle class white Christians join in solidarity with the US upper and middle class contingent, which believes that the poor are wicked and lazy, in order to create a superbloc focused on making the poor suffer. This group justifies antagonism towards the poor and financial injustice through keeping wages low, health insurance unreachable and food assistance unattainable. Because suffering is noble, apparently.

But Jesus requires mercy. Not sacrifice.

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*That and musicianship and quality and stuff.

**You’re probably wondering what POS can honestly say that to another human being. It was me. And I’ve been working through my shame issues ever since.

Judas Practiced Austerity; Jesus Occupied

I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.

– Desmond Tutu

Conservative Christians will often quote a snippet of Jesus to explain why they don’t have to care about taking care of immediate or far-reaching concerns of poor families, children and people. You know that quote: The poor will always be among you.

It appears in the three of the four Gospels: Matthew, Luke, and John. But the phrase originated not with Jesus but in Deuteronomy.

We’ve deconstructed that myth here. But here’s what I’m wondering:

Do these fiscal conservative Christians who identify as capitalists understand that the phrase is contextualized in a passage of scripture about a radical redistribution of wealth and property delivered through the government?

The Bible Endorses Capitalism? Have You Read the Thing?

Hipster Jesus Doesn’t Believe the Religious Right

Jesus wasn’t ignoring the poor. He wasn’t taking a laissez-faire approach to poverty. Rather, the very opposite.

Jesus and his disciples pooled all their resources into a shared, common purse – which he knew Judas was stealing from for his own personal purposes. If that sounds an awful lot like Religious Right leaders that use the Poor Will Always Be Among You verse to deny poor families, women, children, workers, men, and countries basic amenities while stuffing their own faces, it’s because that’s exactly what it is like. If it sounds like parks or libraries or schools or food stamps being defunded due to the fact that “there just isn’t enough money” while the rich generously receive tax breaks worth far more than what your typical worker makes in a generation, that’s because it’s exactly what it is like.

Jesus and his followers lived a common life with common resources. It wasn’t Marxism, specifically, but they were practicing a type of communism. The problem wasn’t in the communism itself – it was in the deception, thievery and gluttony that Judas surrounded it with. Judas was practicing austerity and Jesus was putting him in check – reminding him of his thievery, warning him that he knew what he was doing.

Judas was stealing from the common funds. In response, Jesus was Occupying.

Protesters Occupying Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey.

Note that it was after this prophetic warning that Judas sold out Jesus and delivered him up to the Empire paragons – the minsters of the violent status quo.

Secondly, Jesus was not just talking to Judas but to an entire host of people who were also complaining that this perfume was not given away as a sign of charity. Which is odd. Jesus has spent his entire ministry with, as, and helping  poor people in Judea and Samaria – and now they’re upset that someone else – a woman, at that – wasn’t living up to their newly adopted standards. In his response, Jesus referenced an ancient purity law that the religious leaders were not pursuing and one that the people weren’t pushing. The idea of a just society over and above an occasional charity. We call this law Jubilee. It was the wholesale cancelling of debts and redistribution of wealth, of unrelenting justice.

While much of the Old Testament would not be considered equitable by today’s standards, it had many of its own bright spots in the midst of the shaming purity and people-as-property laws. We can attribute this to an opening of the narrative of the Bible, a process of liberation from a patriarchal, brutal society to a communal and equitable one. Notice I say equitable. Most of us concern ourselves with charity and so leave little room for equity – equity is scary for the dominating powers and charity makes us feel good, so we tend to focus efforts on charity work. It is here we need a true revolution of values, to use Martin Luther King’s phrase.

Ultimately, charity stalls the necessary confrontation of injustice. Though it addresses some immediate need and is necessary in such a cruel and bitter world, the need it addresses is extremely finite, limited, and random. A patchwork of mercy work based on charity leads to an inextricable mix of exhaustion and apathy.

We don’t need more charity and kind-hearted masters, we need justice and liberation. The process of liberation is not an easy one to begin nor to endure – which is probably why Christianity has had more false starts than Christ-like visions over its two thousand year history. It’s much easier for us to endorse the ways of the world – the ways of violence, of gluttony, of oppression – than the path of Jesus – that of shalom, of economic and political equity, of liberation.

But that is the call that Jesus gave to his followers.

Vitters and Bits and the Kind of Violence We Approve of

There is a special room in hell that needs to be renamed The Vitter in dishonor of the senator from Louisiana. Sen. David Vitter introduced a provision into the already lean farm bill (which was already reducing by over five million in the Senate, over 20 million in the House) which would kick off any person who had served jail time for a violent offense. Regardless of the fact that they had already paid their debts to society and would find even meager work hard to find. I suppose that the past means something to a man who had a few, let’s call them “youthful indiscretions”, himself. I guess he considers prostitution a victim-less crime, though. No wait, he doesn’t care about victims or all kinds of violence – he only cares about a certain type of violence. Particularly that perpetrated by poor people.

Cell -- Sing Sing  (LOC)Not the violence committed by corporations who dump toxics into our water, air, or land. Not the kind of violence done by legislators who try to block poor childrens’ access to medical coverage (yeah, he’s that evil). Not the kind of violence done to young people by keeping them ignorant of the safe sex options due to a misguided attempt to keep them pure from non-marital sex – something he sure couldn’t keep up (Yes. Evil). Not the kind of violence that makes it easier for military contractors to not  face charges for rapes that happen on their watch (but to his credit, he felt Haliburton was unfairly targeted. Yep. That kind of evil). Not the kind of violence that makes it harder for the very poor and homeless to be able to receive and give phone calls so that they may connect with their resources, families, and job leads (Again, that kind of evil). Not the kind of violence done by corporations and government bodies that allow children to starve or live in food insecurity.

For that matter, he certainly does not care to follow the kind of violence that allows tens of millions of guns to spread around the nation. Not the kind of violence that leaves the vast majority of sexual violence unaccounted for. Not the kind of violence that starts wars or bombs children.

No, these types of violence kill millions and endanger billions yearly. But they’re not perpetuated by the poor, nor usually by people of color. The kind of violence that the poor are involved in? That people of color are disproportionately faulted for? That is the kind of violence that apparently needs to be starved out of existence.

It is not the kind of measure taken to reduce crime or violence. It won’t protect future victims and may, along with other methods of alienating ex-felons (and their families) from mainstreamed, Middle Class, or even decent housing and food and medical coverage, lead ex-cons back into their desperation. It’s the reason why we fight to have ex-prisoners’ records expunged when possible. If they were supposed to have done their time and paid their debt to society in solitary confinement, then why do we continue to extract blood from them? Because we are not interested in redemption for the people without, for people of color – only for people with means and people who look like the main power brokers. It’s a Jim Crow for the 21st Century.

But since it doesn’t affect the rich  and less so affects the white poor voters that Vitter relies on than their black counterparts (which is a sad reality of modern politics: racial divisiveness used to sanction the War on the Poorest, even if/when the poorest are white) it’s really a win-win for Vitter. He gets to look as if he’s being tough on crime while saving a few million dollars. If some poors (and particularly black poors) get hurt in the process, well, at least they’re not him.

See? #win-win

Vitter Diapers

I’m sure Vitter doesn’t care for us to bring up his past. Bring it up and he will assure you that he’s been forgiven and he’s had to live with what he did and he’s found redemption. But the past is the past and we need to look to the future. Unless you’re poor and brown or black.

Then you don’t get forgiveness.

Yeah, he’s that evil. The level of evil that takes his second opportunity as an opportunity to f**k over others who do not get the opportunity to get a second opportunity.

And the worst part? Nobody bothered stopping him. Not a Republican with a conscience. Not a Democrat with a conscience. Nobody on his committee.

It tells you what kind of people our Congress approves of. And since our Congress is elected by we, the people, it tells you a bit about ourselves too.

Christianity & Capitalism: A Love Story

Saving is for wimps!  I have a plan for affordable housing.

Roll

Eugene McCarraher, a professor at Villanova University reviewed Occupy Wall Street resident historian Dave Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and  Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology for Christianity Today’s Books and Culture magazine recently and I’m just fascinated that such an anti-capitalist view would be espoused in anything published by CT these days. Particularly, he calls the main religion of the US Chrapitalism, an unholy mixture of Capitalism and Christianity and a perversion of the latter that is so far removed from its roots that he calls for a return to Christianity by Chrapitalism’s followers (ie, most of us). However, that hybrid name needs some work. Capitalstianity.

Still working on it.

Some long excerpts:

The Plutocracy’s beatific vision for the mass of Americans is wage servitude: a fearful, ever-busy, and cheerfully abject pool of human resources. Rendered lazy and recalcitrant by a half-century of mooching, American workers must be forced to be free: crush labor unions, keep remuneration low, cut benefits and lengthen working hours, close or narrow every avenue of escape or repose from accumulation. If they insist on living like something more than the whining, expendable widgets they are, reduce them to a state of debt peonage with an ensemble of financial shackles: mortgages, credit cards, and student loans, all designed to ensure that the wage slaves utter two words siren-sweet to business: “Yes, boss.” It’s the latest chapter in the depressing story that David Graeber relates in Debt: debt as an especially insidious weapon in the arsenal of social control. “There’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence … than by reframing them in the language of debt,” he writes, “because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

Alas, we’re living in the early, bewildering days of the demise of the American Empire, the beginning of the end of that obsession-compulsion known as the Amerian Dream. The reasons are clear, if often angrily denied: military hubris and over-extension; a stagnant monopoly capitalism with a bloated financial sector; a population on whom it’s dawning that low-wage labor is their inexorable fate; ecological wreckage that can only be limited or repaired by cessation of growth. The patricians’ task will be threefold: finessing the increasingly obvious fact of irreversible imperial decline; convincingly performing the charade of democracy in the face of popular vassalage; and distracting or repressing the roiling rage and tumult among the plebs. How will the elites maintain and festoon their ever-more untenable hegemony? …

The injustice and indignity of capitalism have seldom been so openly wretched, but as Graeber ruefully observes, just when we need “to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times,” we seem to have “hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.”

Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of “American exceptionalism,” the sanctimonious and blood-spattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal fonts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.

As Critchley asserts, “ ‘God’ is the first anarchist, calling us into struggle with the mythic violence of law, the state, and politics by allowing us to glimpse the possibility of something that stands apart.By inciting us to curse and renounce the homespun idolatry of Chrapitalism, Critchley and Graeber can point Christians back to a terrible but glorious moment in their history: when the avant-garde of the eschaton were maligned as godless traitors. We’ll need that dangerous memory in our frightful if doubtless very different time.

Note: That’s what it sometimes feels like. In questioning the morality of a system that allows for and necessitates the starvation of billions of people, the questioners are made to feel like they are proposing shooting babies in the head. I have been called a communist in a pejorative sense – with the assumption that I am an atheist and I don’t believe in God. I am often asked if I hate the US. I cannot blame those who question me – we have all been fed this idea that at its roots, capitalism is a godly, natural good connected with a benevolent God. At its core, we are taught, capitalism is responsible for our well-being through God’s generosity.

But when you live most of your life in poverty and study to find that you may never – like the vast majority of the world – rise from under its boot heel, you start to question the unquestioned goodness of capitalism and whether or not it is of God.

In Graeber’s view, economics’ most nefarious impact on morality is its perverse account of social relations, especially those revolving around obligation and interdependence. Graeber distinguishes between obligations—the incalculable owing of favors, as when you give me something, and I owe you something back—and debt as a precisely enumerable obligation, and therefore calculable in terms of equivalence and money. Conceivable only when people are treated not as human beings but as abstractions, equivalence is the categorical imperative of pecuniary reason, and it sanctifies the self-righteous, skinflint buncombe that parades as an ethic of “character.” Isn’t paying one’s debts the basis of morality and dependable personal character? Especially when translated into money, the quantification of debt can justify a lot of indecent, horrific conduct. Can’t pay me back? I’ll take your daughter, or foreclose on your home, or demand austerity measures that result in famine, disease, or destitution.

Graeber’s alternative to debt and its moral atrocities is communism: “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” (Not, note well, according to their “deserts.”) Knowing that he’ll face a fusillade of umbrage about “totalitarianism,” Graeber insists that communism “exists right now” and lies at “the foundation of all human sociability.” Our lives abound with moments of everyday communism: we don’t charge people who ask us for directions, and if we do, we’re rightly considered jerks. Communism is not “egalitarianism”—which, as even Marx observed, partakes of the boring, inhuman logic of equivalence—and in Graeber’s view, it doesn’t entail any specific form of property. (An unromantic admirer of peasant societies and their moral economy of “the commons,” Graeber appears to endorse what anthropologists sometimes call “usufruct,” in which property becomes a kind of trusteeship dependent on the performance of a function.) A communist relationship—between spouses, lovers, friends—is not only one in which accounts are not kept, but one in which it would be considered “offensive, or simply bizarre” to even think of doing so. Love keeps no record of wrongs—or rights…

As 19th-century craftsmen and workers understood better than we do today, wage labor is the slavery of capitalism: if you don’t own the means of production, you work for those who do—unlike chattel, you enjoy the dubiously ennobling privilege of choosing your master.

Graeber affirms redemption and friendship against the command economy of libertas. Friends and lovers don’t treat each other as servants or vendable objects, so freedom should be “the ability to make friends,” the capacity to enter into human relations that are uncoerced and incalculable. And since friends are naturally communists, they’ll live without thinking of their relations in a way that leads to double-entry bookkeeping; they’ll live in the light of “redemption,” which isn’t about “buying something back” but rather about “destroying the entire system of accounting.” To create a more humane and generous world, we must unlearn our moral arithmetic and throw the ledgers into the bonfire. A communist society of friends requires the abolition of capitalism.

Graeber concedes that Christianity harbors traces of a moral and ontological revolution against the regime of debt. “Redemption” could point to the destruction and transcendence of equivalence; as Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians explained, “our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be.” You can pay off the bank or the bartender; how do you square a “debt ” to God?

Indeed, how does one pay back God? To put it another way, how can we pay back demigods, as our banking and lending institutions are set up as? Us mere mortals?

No. Seriously?

Outsourcing Sorrow, Death, and Terror

As garment workers continue to die making clothes for cheap-ass American and multiational clothing companies, cheap-ass American and multinational companies continue to deflect blame. “No, we don’t have anything currently in production with that garment company that forced its workers to clock in to a collapsing building, that is housed on the top floors of a building that was authorized for five stories but had another three added on illegally to keep up with demand that we helped foster and a working environment that we not only helped foster but gave US credence to and sanctioned. But since we don’t have anything currently being made there, we are not responsible for this bad thing.”

After all, how are they going to make profits if they don’t cut corners? Or, more appropriately, how are multinational corporations like Hobby Lobby, Walmart, fertilizer companies in proudly unregulated Texas, and The Children’s Place going to make affordable items and huge profit margins without underpaying workers and cutting safety corners?

The AP reports about the factory building that collapsed and killed well over 140 people earlier this week in Bangladesh:

Among the textile businesses in the building were Phantom Apparels Ltd., New Wave Style Ltd., New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Brothers Ltd. According to their website, the New Wave companies make clothing for major brands including U.S. retailers The Children’s Place and Dress Barn, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton.

And though these corporations claim that they’re not responsible for such working conditions, they not only do business with the companies through contracts and trades, they sign off on these very same companies and the working environments. They do this explicitly in Third World countries with little union or governmental influence for the very fact that they seek to cut costs and corners as much as feasible and possible. They need to be held responsible for their contractors. For the collapsing buildings and collapsing lungs.

These multinationals and American corporations that have sold out the US workers have not necessarily found better (nor worse) workers, just workers who have yet to organize. And these same corporations are trying to do the same in the Third World working conditions that they tried to do at the turn of the 20th century and have been doing again since the 1980s – destroy workers’ chances to effectively organize for their rights. If these companies are going to send our jobs overseas, at least make it a fair fight – at least give these jobs to people who benefit from having American-style jobs and workers’ rights, rather than toiling for pennies an hour in collapsible and combustible conditions.

Oh, but that’s the point, isn’t it? Multinationals like Walmart and Dress Barn get to pretend that they are doing Third World citizens a favor by giving them some ludicrously small rate of pay because it’s better than the pay they would receive from… farming, I suppose? From having their own labor to use in a manner that might be more suitable to them if they had control of their own land and resources?

So by doing them a “favor”, these corporations – and us, their consumers, by extension – get to back out of the responsibility of providing safe working conditions? At least that’s the argument that economist writer Matthew Yglesias of Slate Magazine argues. The entire piece is incredibly frustrating, as he argues that it is quite all right that Bangladesh has different safety standards for their workers than the US does because, after all, those workers “choose” to work in unsafe working conditions.

This is a fundamental problem of American libertarianism and neo-liberalism: The idea that everybody everywhere has free will to choose how they live, where they work, where they live. This is a problem of severe privilege and immense narcissism.

But no, if we’re going to outsource our jobs anyway in this capitalist society, we’re going to need to outsource our safety standards (and that would and should include the right and ability for workers to organize for better treatment). If we can’t or won’t do that, then we have no right to brag about being such a great nation if our greatness is founded on the fact that we send our toils and disasters to other people while enjoying the fruits of their sorrows.

Which brings us to our second point, for not only do we outsource our capitalist worker treatments through third party textile manufacturing plants, we also outsource our fear and and insecurity through the War on Terror.

Yemeni youth activist and journalist Farea Al-Muslimi had a chance to share his own story in front of  a congressional panel recently.

I came to America (for one year) as an ambassador of Yemen; I went back to Yemen as an ambassador of America…

Local authorities could have easily arrested him if Americans had told them to… But now, when they think of America, they think of the terror they hear from the drones that circle overhead, ready to fire at any time. What the violent militants failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant… This is not an isolated incident… I have spoken to many victims…

I was torn between this great country (the US) that I love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some… militants… I felt that way when my village was also droned.

Thank you for having me here. I believe in America and I deeply believe that when Americans truly know about how much pain and suffering the US airstrikes have caused and how much they are harming efforts to win hearts, minds… in Yemen… they will reject this devastating targeting program.

We allow both of these monstrosities to happen with scant protest because they are happening far away. And because the people whom we are injuring here are both desperately poor, speak “funny” and look different. Indeed, they are dark-skinned and if they weren’t, we would be objecting a lot more vocally because we would identify more closely with them.

At least they can speak for themselves.

The Turning of the Poor

Not only are the poor blamed for living in that harrowing position of poverty, for not being middle class, for not being what middle and upper class consider “productive members of society”, for being “lazy” despite working harder just to make it through every day, for just existing in a constant state of discomfort that others claim is leisurely and comfortable, the poor are also blamed when we try to leave poverty.

It is perfectly acceptable for a handful to leave poverty at a time. People may reactively cheer for the fortunate few raised in poverty who enter and finish college, who thrive in professional fields, and who join the management or professional class. But those positions and places are open for only a few. The vast majority of the poor are not able to enter the upper classes, are not able to leave the bitter financial insecurity, no matter how hard they may want it or try. Even getting a Master’s degree is no guarantee for a job, let alone a decent-paying one. Escape from poverty is bottle-necked – working harder and smarter isn’t the main qualification, facing a certain type of fortune is.

So the poor are expected to, as a mass, as a significant amount of families, men, women and children, remain poor and suffer the physical and social effects of poverty. While we are blamed for it. What a double damning sword.

And we come to realize that the American Dream is a trap for most of us. We recognize that we are manipulated and conditioned to believe that anyone who wills it will succeed in the so-called Land of Opportunity. And this is all a shambles, a packaged dream. As we unplug, we begin to ask for more for not just ourselves but for our fellow workers. We ask for rights for not just some of us, but for us all.

Gate

We protect collective bargaining rights. But pundits call us thugs and politicians call us thieves while the upper classes spread rumors that we are lazy and seek to shield incompetence. This is not just a Republican tactic anymore, either. For the old people’s party, the Democratic Party, has bought into the lies as well in union-heavy regions like Chicago. We are ridiculed and maligned for wanting to be in unions that will protect us from the billowing whims and desires of a shifting managerial and capitalist class. We are expected to be grateful for the good nature of the managerial and capitalist classes – those who would fire us at a moment’s notice for no reason at all. Those who would give us as little as possible as much as necessary – as they treat their workers in non-unionized Third World nations. While we try to unite, they work to divide us.

We lobby for minimum wage increases. And knowing that the minimum wage – even at full-time hours – is not enough to sustain a person, let alone a family, safely and well we ask for slight increases to ease our burdens. Never mind the fact that, had minimum wage kept up with either inflation or productivity rates for the last thirty years, minimum wage would have increased two- or three-fold; we only asked for a slight percentage increase, a couple dollars an hour. Never mind that the poor are constantly under attack for not contributing enough to the tax base. Never mind the studies that show that raising the minimum wage has a negligible effect on inflation or on the closing down of businesses. No. Never mind those, for we are rebuffed and refused once again.

We pursue the prospect of living wages. Because a slight increase in horrible, unjust wages is still unjust. And yet the ability to work and get paid well enough to live without fear, without being constantly on the edge – this is looked upon by the same class of people as a cruel joke against their vaunted system. If we seek it, we are derided as delusional communists who want to steal and commit warfare against our betters. But if this is what capitalism offers, maybe the entire system needs to be questioned. Maybe it needs to be gutted.

We seek equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, sex, orientation, race, and ethnicity. And we are told there is no such thing as inequalities. And we demonstrate in case after case that these inequalities are real and devastating. And some powerful people who have made it to the top finally agree. But only for those who are at or near the top. The rest are encouraged to lean in – to forsake all for the pursuit of business success in the hopes that that success will allow women to finally share with men. But for the vast majority of poor women, particularly poor mothers, such options are not viable. And again, the shaming continues.

We push for accessible and affordable medical coverage for all. When we do that for the poor, we are mocked and called unrealistic. We are accused of trying to destroy the country and reward laziness. In pure Orwellian tactics, we are accused of trying to kill the poor and infirmed. When we point out that every industrial country in the world but the United States covers all their citizens and for cheaper rates than we have for fractions of our citizens, we are reminded that the US is special. Apparently, that designation is one it shares with its poor. We are ever-so-helpfully informed that ERs are open and free (they are not). And when we remind them that the poor can and often do suffer from chronic issues as they do, we are ignored or told that’s why we need good insurance or we are blamed for our chronic issues.

We seek full health coverage for all women’s bodies. But then we are reminded that the conservative status of the body (read: person) of the female – and the non-cis male – is one of subservience and jilted disdain. Indeed, the very women who abide the brunt of bearing the children of men (and whose bodies pay the consequence of that which men – and particularly, patriarchy – praise them for) are despised for carrying those same traits. The very price for bearing the responsibility of bearing and nurturing children is looked upon as a sign of shame by the same society that so highly declares its value in children and mothers. But particular woe to a woman who is poor, and yet even more to one who is also Brown. Poor women workers do not receive compensations for the price of bearing or raising children, do not receive concessions, do not receive protected time off for bearing or raising children. Have to struggle to make ends meet as they are, as men are not as tied down to the fate of women’s bodies or children as men are. And as such, poor women are also refused adequate birth control and family planning at every turn. They do not have the freedom over their own bodies or over their own liberties as their male counterparts nor their wealthier counterparts practice.

We ask for the simple benefit of maintaining affirmative actions to include People of Color and women in the hiring and registration process in those very places that continue to disregard women and POC. And we are told that we are merely affirming racism and sexism. We have out-of-context quotes thrown in our face by the same type of people who tried to silence the very person they are now quoting. And we are told that to pursue such policies actually hurts People of Color because then co-workers will constantly question whether or not the POC at their workplace are adequate enough workers, are smart enough or qualified enough. Of course it is they who project these very feelings of inadequacy (feelings that are innately racist) onto the Black and Brown workers.

Those very same women and POC who are not only capable and competent, but often come from hard stock as they have had to and continue to work harder than white males simply because of the social handicaps afforded them by the hegemony – by the controlling powers*.

We poor people struggle to unite, but we are divided. And we are divided because we are simply too weak to change such powerfully embedded political, economic, military, social, psychological institutions when we are few. So they divide us on race, on gender norms, on loyalty to baseball teams, on education level. They use our cultural identities – which are good – as tribal markers that mark us as greater than or less than our peers, our fellow travelers.

No! To attain economic equality and justice, we must seek equality and justice in an equitable and just manner. We shall not be divided anymore. We shall not allow cultural differences to keep us from loving each other, even as we respect and recognize cultural differences.

We tire of their tired tricks.

We demand justice.

We are hounded and pursued and ridiculed and silenced and lied to and pushed back and hurt and ignored on every turn, every inch, every corner.

But we will not be denied.

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*As we discussed previously, Black and White servants and slaves fraternized and even rebelled against the powerful elite before, but were intentionally divided to keep the populace under control.

A History of a People Divided by Engineered Racism

During those brief moments that we actually consider the notion of racism, most USAmericans either consider racism to be passé and imagined (particularly White Americans believe that) or as an unrelenting social force that always has been and always will be. Both hypotheses are wrong (they should not be considered theories as they are not shown to have been holding up to various, rigorous tests). The first hypothesis is not true and any social study or study of the criminal justice system or economics among the races can clarify that (“Accidental Racism” notwithstanding). In fact, the old stand-by for White Americans when confronted with the reality of racial economic and criminal justice belies that fact. For when evidence is displayed concerning the disparity of wealth, prison populations, unemployment, etc, between White and Black people and households, White people who don’t study history will often excuse these injustices with some variant of, “They deserve that for their laziness/ignorance/(insert other racist stereotype here)”; “They should stop living in the past”; “They should stop blaming us for their problems.” These statements underline common myths from slavery ages: that the black person is inferior, stupid, lazy.

In other words, these assertions tell us much more about the state of White American animus against Afro-Americans than they have anything to say about Afro-Americans themselves.

But they also underline a division that is not natural but man-made – and particularly man-made by those who benefit from having a divided population that – due to its division – will not and cannot rise to overthrow the shackles of oppression.

They.

Us.

Who are “they”? Who is “us”? Were we always “us”? Were they always “they”?

This brings us to that second hypothesis: that the distinctions are natural and as old as history.

A bit of colonial US history could go a long way to dispel both lies.

When Africans were first brought to the colonies as slaves, they were not the only slaves. Many poor Europeans sailed the Atlantic (though usually by choice, often they were tricked or prisoners) and, to pay off the debt of the passage, worked as temporary slaves (“indentured servants”) with little-to-no freedom of movement themselves. Some even had their children work off their debt – if they were able to have children, that is. And when they finished their terms, they were often hardly better off than when they were servants or when they were in Europe.

Chain

As slavery in the New World and particularly in the English colonies was just beginning, it was going to be refined. And as it was being refined, it would change substantially. The ruling classes recognized the power of a united underclass and so divided them into a higher-underclass (Europeans and their descendants) and a permanent underclass (Africans and their descendants). As time would further develop, nuances would change, but generally-speaking, White Americans would always be treated a few steps ahead of their black counterparts in regards to social class (there being huge distinctions and a largely irrational racial animus among white working class people against Black working class people, and much mistrust and segregation garnered toward the Black professional class), sex (for much of its history, white feminism has largely ignored and/or marginalized non-white women within the movement, as Sojourner Truth and the Womanist Movement have shown and critiques of the new Lean In emphasis by higher-social class professionals also demonstrate), education level, and sexual preference (the idea that there is a monolithic and supportive “gay community” is a media myth for some. Many Black gay Chicagoans find Boystown to be not much more receptive than their home communities, for instance).

And we can say that these distinctions are natural – but they are not. They are intentional divisions wrought by the ruling classes, using tribalism to drive deep wedges between races that may find much in common if not in their cultural signifiers or general understanding of history, then in many of their circumstances – especially concerning how the ruling classes treat us.

From Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

[In] spite of special subordination of blacks in the Americas in the seventeenth century, there is evidence that where whites and blacks found themselves with common problems, common work, common enemy in their master, they behaved toward one another as equals. As one scholar of slavery, Kenneth Stampp, has put it, Negro and white servants of the seventeenth century were “remarkably unconcerned about the visible physical differences.”

Black and white worked together, fraternized together. The very fact that laws had to be passed after a while to forbid such relations indicates the strength of that tendency. ..

There is an enormous difference between a feeling of racial strangeness, perhaps fear, and the mass enslavement of million of black people that took place in the Americas. The transition from one to the other cannot be explained easily by “natural” tendencies. It is not hard to understand as the outcome of historical conditions.

Slavery grew as the plantation system grew. The reason is easily traceable to something other than natural repugnance: the number of arriving whites, whether free or indentured servants (under four to seven years contract), was not enough to meet the need of the plantations. By 1700, in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves, one-twelfth of the population. By 1763, there were 170,000 slaves, about half the population.

And so the controlling factions needed to be bigger, tougher, more strict, and more divisive. Slaves were not allowed to fraternize with servants, and then they weren’t allowed to fraternize amongst each other, freely. Even amongst themselves, they were divided from field slaves and house slaves –  and even some slaves acted as slave drivers to continue with the divided oppression.

African slaves, indigenous peoples, and European indentured servants would work together, play together, learn from each other, have babies and families together, make community together, revolt together. And it’s that last part that scared the crap out of the capitalist class. So while they made it more and more difficult for Black, White and Indigenous workers to get together, they also drew up larger differences in how each group of worker was treated. The proclaimed treatments drew wedges between the commonalities and the communities of shared love, to be replaced with material and social class distinctions of apparent superiority and inferiority. The class distinctions made it so that the White workers would feel comparatively better than their Black counterparts. Where there was love and fraternity, now there was suspicion and animosity.

These wedges will continue to divide us as long as White Americans continue to blame Black Americans for racism, for their conditions, for “driving wedges” by acknowledging the racism they continue to be targeted for, for sitting with each other during the lunch break when we Whites fail to acknowledge their own humanity, history, and shared cultural lives.

Let us all throw off the shackles of dehumanizing each other that so easily entangle and run for the race set before us.

It Isn’t Comfy to Be in Poverty

The poor, by definition, are those who either do not have enough or who live in a state (often constant) of material emergency – always steps away from being wiped out. The poor exist in different contexts and with different stipulations in different towns, states and communities – and one with no cash can in many ways be more well-off than one with a couple thousand tucked away – depending on circumstances and contexts like family and health and need to relocate, proximity and access to education, decent medicine, food, etc.

However it is broken down, though, the state of being mere steps away from imminent disaster can never be described as “comfortable.” There are different ways of dealing with that insecurity – but the point is, poverty is insecurity. It is the opposite of comfort.

Unless you want to speak from a place of experience of being poor (or being near the poor) as Fox News contributor Charles Payne does here in order to highlight how the poor just need a quick kick in the nuts to get their shit together:

There’s this idea that between the food stamps and the welfare and the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit and the local programs, you know, it gets a little comfortable to be in poverty.

Payne isn’t alone in this regrettable observation. This idea that  the poor are here for a free ride and, really, being poor isn’t that hard after all trickles down in scattered showers and barrels against us like vengeful hurricanes through color commentary, enactments, legislation and the general demeanor of the ruling class toward the underclass.

Hammock

In Tennessee, for instance, a bill has been making the rounds that “calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.” Poor children are penalizedfurtherfor not living up to the standards of upper middle class white legislators – most of whom are male, most of whom can afford to go to a school council meetings because of flexibility with their jobs not often given to hourly workers.

Oftentimes, poor parents can’t make those meetings. They work long hours. They commute long hours. They can’t find a sitter for the other kids – or they have to visit other kids’ functions. They prioritize, but they have other priorities to meet at the time. Often emergency priorities. Because, again, being poor means that one is constantly licking the flames of an emergency state, constantly in crisis.

Or maybe the parents and the students feel like the schooling system isn’t listening to them. Or maybe they’re just exhausted.  Will starving them when they are already undernourished help them in any manner? No. Of course not. Putting the vulnerable at more risk only means that they have more to worry about – and worry and resignation is much of what both defines and defeats the poor as it is.

For when you are poor for a long time, you begin to worry – not just about whether you will eat or pay the rent (two things I constantly worry about), but whether you will ever stop worrying.

When you are poor, you are likely to:

  • Wonder when you’ll eat good food regularly again – or you settle into the idea that that will not be an option
  • Have poor education. Partly because most available education is paid for by local property taxes and the ones who can most afford higher taxes are the ones with the least amount of worry and who can also afford private education
  • Seriously cry over spilled milk
  • Spend every waking hour – and those are many – worrying if you’ll have enough money to last the week, let alone pay off debts.
  • Find it increasingly difficult to live in a safe neighborhood.
  • Be more often victimized and assaulted
  • Be close to those who are victimized and assaulted – and perhaps those who victimize and assault
  • Be uninformed of the options available to get into college
  • Be in an abusive relationship
  • Receive harrassment rather than assistance from police
  • Need police and public services
  • Be denied access to public services as funds are
  • Are more likely to find yourself in social circles with few people who can assist you in a tight financial strain
  • Are more likely to be the victim of predatory lending with exponentially higher interest rates for necessary loaning than the middle and upper classes
  • Pay more in regressive taxes and may pay more percentage-wise than the very rich who can most afford it
  • Can not have your money work for you; since two pennies scratching each other don’t actually do anything
  • Don’t have the privilege of getting your teeth checked regularly
  • Tend to consider the emergency room as your clinic
  • Get used to being associated with criminality and malicious intent
  • Are considered either a criminal or a criminal-in-training
  • Are as likely if not more likely to suffer from chronic health problems as middle class/wealthy, but far, far less likely to receive adequate medical treatment for it – let alone consistent treatment. Let alone able to see for a second or third opinion
  • Are blamed at every turn for fiscal problems of city, county, state, and nation

All of these are circumstances of being poor. Most of these I have experienced first-hand or my neighbors have. I have been accosted. I worry hourly about how to stretch money, pay bills, make more money, and feed my daughter. In addition, the poor are under relentless scrutiny and endless judgment by the upper classes as well as their own class – mostly for that which is not within their power or immediate grasp.

The poor are scrutinized for:

  • Clothes (ever wonder why poor in certain communities buy so much cheap clothing?)
  • Food
  • Weight (“If they’re so poor, why are they so fat?” is a common question that middle class white Americans ask about the food insecure – ignoring the fact that grease is cheaper as well as addictive)
  • Household items
  • Not having stocks or savings (In a Facebook thread I was recently involved in, one White male asked, “If you’re 35, single and without stocks or bonds, where did you go wrong?”)
  • Style
  • Language usage (Middle class, Midwestern speech patterns are considered the default pronunciation and grammar settings in the US. Everyone else is judged for how closely they resemble this “good language.”
  • Hints of dirtiness

And the poor are judged for:

  • Apparent work ethic
  • Values
  • How we treat our children
  • Trying to fit in.
  • For not trying to fit in.
  • Education level
  • Job status
  • Career
  • Performance in public places
  • Whether or not we meet requirements of “genuine” poverty

Field Refrigerators

These poor people have too many fridges!

In fact, long before the Heritage Foundation used universal ownership of refrigerators as evidence that USian poverty is truly a myth, some of my conservative friends would compare the abundance of today’s poorest to the lack of kings during the middle ages (they had castles, but no central heat. It was really cold in those drafty places. Too bad they couldn’t warm up with fireplaces or nothing…). The implication being that the poor in the US these days have it soooooo fekking easy.

But we don’t. There is no comfort in being judged for what we lack. There is no physical or psychological or social comfort in any of this. Whatever comfort is to be found is found by the necessity of erasing the high-bludgeoning tensions through various (and often unhealthy) means, whether they be drug or alcohol abuse or partying or gaming or sports.

They use these methods of escape, when they do, because, once again, there is no comfort in poverty.