* My homeless self: White “resentment” and black power


“Generations of slavery and discrimination make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower classes.”

Do you agree with that statement?  If not, you harbor resentment toward blacks.

That is the premise, not the conclusion, of a recent study by three political scientists.  As reported by James Goodman in the October 6, 2013 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the study’s conclusions seem indisputable.  I question its premise.  I ask whether “resentment” was the best or right thing to measure; whether this criterion statement was the best or right way to measure it; whether the criterion statement is factual, and if so, whether it matters.

In the study, “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” authors Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen, Goodman says, “using the 1860 census — looked at the percentage of the population that was slaves in 1,251 counties in states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  They then looked at opinion polling data of more than 39,000 white Southerners …  Counties that in 1860 had a population with a high percentage of slaves were most likely now to have a white population showing racial resentment.

“Even with two Southern counties that today have the same percentage of African-Americans, the one that in 1860 had more slaves currently shows more racial resentment.”

This much seems indisputable, and can be interpreted different ways.  There can be controversy over various features the study did not examine.

The study did not examine the factuality of the criterion statement.

The study did not examine upward mobility.

The gist of the educational sociology course I took in 1976 was that upward mobility fundamentally does not happen.  For anyone.  The schools are a vast sorting machine that functions to assure each child stays in the same socio-economic status (“S.E.S.”) as its parents.

Moreover, whether driven by globalization or instead “trickle-down” economics, the American middle class has been disappearing ever since the Reagan era, and it may soon enough be impossible for anyone “to work their way out of the lower classes.”  As I will discuss below, however, there is more to prosperity and quality of life than S.E.S. alone.

The study did not examine racism.

Racism is prevalent in this country.  There’s ample evidence of that.  Its intensity varies from place to place and can be measured.  One study focused on the use of racial epithets in searches on the Internet, and the locations of those searchers.  Another looked at the locations of posters using racial epithets in tweets.

Given the 28% approval rating of the October 1 – October 16, 2013 shutdown of the federal government, it seems to me the only “principle” at stake for the Tea Party is the President’s skin color.

The researchers could have measured racism, had they chosen to.  They did not.  They measured “resentment” instead.

The study did not examine the lower classes.

Whether or not by choice, I have lived most of my adult life in close quarters with poor people of all kinds.  At this writing, I myself am also not just poor, but homeless.

I observe no difference between poor blacks and poor whites — not in circumstances, nor attitudes, nor behavior patterns, nor obstacles to prosperity.

Most poor people in this country are white.

It’s politically incorrect to pay attention to poor white people.

Poor white people have been around for millennia, and I don’t believe they’ll ever go away.  We find them in the Old Testament and the New Testament.  They appear in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hogarth and Dickens.  They are prominent in Faulkner.

There is much to learn from the character of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Read “The Making of Annie Sullivan,” the first chapter of Joseph P. Lash’s Helen and Teacher.  Her sight increasingly impaired by trachoma, Annie Sullivan was removed from an alcoholic home and confined to a rat-infested institution.  Her story makes clear that no deprivation or depravity that besets black people fails to visit poor whites also.  “Her chance to escape … came when she heard that an investigating commission headed by Frank B. Sanborn … had arrived to inspect the institution. … Finally, as the men stood at the gate, she acted. Without knowing which figure was the exalted Mr. Sanborn, she flung herself into the group, crying, “Mr. Sanborn, Mr. Sanborn, I want to go to school!”  She was 14 years old.  Alone of all that population, Annie Sullivan was upwardly mobile.

In the second chapter of Huckleberry Finn, in a spasm of alcoholic dementia Pap, his father, chases Huck around the cabin with a long knife.  Huck falls asleep in the rafters cradling a shotgun.  Like many, many poor children, success in school was not Huck’s top priority.  Saving his life — from his own father — was.

From 1978 to 1982, I taught in a middle school that served the O’Donnell Heights public housing project in Baltimore.

Two percent of the children born there who stay there will graduate high school.  In many cases, this will be the first person in the family ever to graduate high school.

It is difficult to get parental support for students’ schooling when the parents themselves never went past eighth grade.

Fathers there die young, often violent deaths, often in the home.

One day I was holding a number of students, including Kelly, after school for detention.  I saw an old woman approaching my area; she looked older than my own mother, who at the time was 65.  I took her for someone’s grandmother.  Turned out, she was Kelly’s mother.  From previous phone conversations, I knew her to be the same age as I was, 29.

Marriage is not a concept here.  In that area, many women her age are grandmothers.  And it was known that Kelly’s mother changed male partners every few months.

At that time, O’Donnell Heights was 75% white.

I drove through Baltimore’s Mt. Clare Junction once circa 1980.  There were the bums, the junkies, the slums, the trash, the sneering young men loitering on corners.  In 2006, when I took a job there, you had all the exact same kinds of people doing all the exact same kinds of things.  Nothing had changed but their skin color.  In 1980 they were white; in 2006 they were not.

The study did not examine what keeps poor people poor.

Most poor people stay poor by creating poverty.

One night in 1982, a colleague gave a number of us a lift home from an evening meeting at the school where we taught.  One person gushed at the new townhomes being constructed on the block bounded by Baltimore Street, Wolfe Street, Fayette and Washington Streets.  She’s not familiar with the area; I am.  I said inwardly, “Tear down old slums and put up new ones.”  By the time they were demolished in 2006, that’s exactly what they had become.

For twenty years, there was a monumental effort to turn around Baltimore’s blighted, racially mixed Patterson Park neighborhood.  The premise was that an owner-occupant will maintain a property better than any landlord or tenant.  As of 1990, the goal had been met; 80% of the properties in the area were owner-occupied.  But as I stood at her front door one day, a church member who had been personally deeply involved in that effort waved toward the houses around us.  “Do you see any difference?”  I was silent.  The factual answer was no.

At the intersection of North and Greenmount Avenues in Baltimore is a set of traffic signs that must be unique in Maryland.  A sign facing northbound traffic on Greenmount reads, “WATCH FOR PEDS NEXT 1½ MILES.”  A sign facing eastbound traffic on North Avenue says, “WATCH FOR PEDS NEXT 2 MILES.”  I lived in that area for five years.  Egocentrism, the overwhelming need for instant gratification of every whim, so stupefies the people there that they actually walk out into traffic.

In that district, it was taken for granted that a “man” — as opposed to a “faggot” or “punk” — will spend most of his adult life behind bars. “Hard time” and making babies are the definition of a man.  This is a sure prescription for intergenerational poverty.

It should be clear now that, for me, “poor” is not a code word for “black.”  When I say poor, I mean poor.  If I mean black, I’ll say black.  They’re two different things.

I see only one advantage that white children have over blacks:  white kids who would succeed in school don’t suffer peers’ taunts that they’re “trying to be white.”

What does it mean to be black in America?

Black is as black does.

Blackness is redefined every day by what black people do.  What white people think means nothing.  White folk have no say.  Only black folk have any say, and their choices and actions speak for them.

Every person, every day, has equal opportunity — and responsibility — to engage in self-definition, choosing what sort of person one will be, whether to create prosperity or destroy it.

To curse one’s child in public or instead encourage a neighbor; to assault a random stranger, or instead resolve conflicts.

To pluck up or pull down, to build up or destroy, to cut down or to plant.

To persist in egocentrism, or instead develop such self-regard as to look before walking into traffic.

I went into some detail about these things in a previous piece, “Chaos Overwhelms the Poor.”

My zeal is that poor people — I don’t care what they look like. — learn to create prosperity; my homeless self included.

(Reposted 11/02/17.)

KEYWORDS: on air talent, talk show host, talk radio, the homeless blogger

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