Poverty and the people living in this state are often discussed with precarious, cloaked language. The human beings living in poverty are faces in the shadows, mysterious… and slightly scary as a result. They are unclean and therefore those living a paycheck away from joining them cling desperately to the social constructs that place a barrier between “us” and “them”. They are “lazy”. They are “scheming”…because we are so smart to see that the man begging for spare change is wearing a brand new pair of shoes. Little do we know, they were gifted to him from a kind-hearted stranger, conscious of the bitter cold that lies ahead. “But that man is there every day, on-time, begging, like it’s a job”…well in absence of the ability to get one and with shelters at capacity, technically what other choice does he have? The alternative being to just curl up in his shadowy corner, out of sight, and die. And there are those that would find this an appropriate end.
What is often unspoken when we talk about poverty is the WHY. Yes, hard times are assumed, which landed individuals in this state of despair. But what has caused generations of families to come into this world with less than an 8% chance of ever climbing their way out? In this “land of opportunity”, where immigrants come and open up businesses and thrive. Why is it that the faces of poverty in this country are more times than not black and brown?
Across a variety of contexts and conversations, “poverty” serves as a code word for black and brown faces. In medical and health spaces, “poverty” is a cause for “higher risk” everything. In housing spaces, “poverty” is at fault for declining property values; with dilapidated housing seen as not appalling but appropriate for “those people”. “Poverty” is always reported as the cause for “high crime”, “high violence”, “high incarceration rates”. Unemployment rates (without mention of the number of available jobs of course) are always highest in these “poverty” areas. On paper, these trends repeated over and over without any context would easily lead one to believe that “those” people are just “bad”. With all of those negative associations, any logical person would quickly resolve they want nothing to do with any of those outcomes for fear of some of them rubbing off and attaching onto them.
Context is so critical.
Often times, in our rush to resolution and judgement, we forgo the critical first step of gaining understanding through context. This country, as described from the traditional “exploitative and colonizing” perspective began over 500 years ago. Throughout the span of this “New World’s” establishment there has been a vehement thirst for dehumanizing black and brown people. First by spilling the blood of millions of First Nations people who were already here, and then immediately after by the import of millions of African people who were then subject to 400 years of the most brutal institution of dehumanization known in the history of mankind, which continues on to this very day.
Descendants of both free and enslaved Africans have survived the depths of pain and trauma that is almost utterly inconceivable, the unthinkable. Yet, I have seen throughout my lifespan, people bristle at the mention of this factual history! Both black and white people who wish to “move on”, point at a few sample indications of “westernized success” with black faces and call it progress and urge the dismissal of discussing slavery and its impacts. But what happens in these swift attempts to deny looking into the mirror of history in this country is to dismiss the tragic realities, struggles, losses, deaths, and traumas of our ancestors who made it possible for us to stand here today.
Poverty did not just “happen”.
Consider a baby, born of it’s mother and snatched away to be raised in the most brutal circumstances, beaten, raped, psychologically abused, denied the basic needs that any human being would require to develop into a healthy adult. This baby has been beaten into submission throughout its life and knows nothing else except what its brutalizer has taught them. Then at about age 16, this child is released from their brualizer and sent into the streets. Thrust into “the real world” where jobs hire based upon the competitiveness of your sharpened resume, your slick, non-threatening and highly westernized appearance, and how well you speak proper Old English. Housing is provided to those who have jobs with an income. Credit is afforded to those who have the preceding two. Oh and by the way, society hates this “baby”.
Exacerbate this baby’s reality with the fact that government is not too happy about the brutalizer having to release their baby, so they create another institution within which they can continue brutalizing legally- the prison industrial complex. Multi-national, billion dollar businesses invest in these complexes and profit, babies are snatched up left and right to fill these prisons and keep the brutalization of yester years going strong (separation of families, emasculating men, intentional spread of disease among targeted prison populations, etc). Same tactics with a new face. Oh but they didn’t stop there, these evolved brutalizers wanted to spice things up even more and create educational systems that continued the brutalization that was done in private to a broader, more formalized scale through public education. Additionally, crack was genetically created in labs to attack these “babies” and be the most addictive based upon their genetic makeup. It’s added benefit was also intended to destroy families, boost incarceration rates, etc. Other industries caught on and created other “creative strategies” to target babies and make their lives as miserable or unlivable as possible. Some of those strategies included experimental medical testing without consent, redlining and charging exorbitantly inflated mortgage rates to increase the earning/wealth gap dramatically, regulation for welfare recipients that enforced fatherless households and further dismantling of familial structures, genetically modified, heavy salt and sugar filled, processed foods concentrated in targeted communities, etc etc etc the list of atrocities goes on and on….
When we consider this story objectively, as happening to an innocent “baby”, perhaps these atrocities become much more apparent and your responses much more visceral. But I would challenge you to ask yourself why your response is different when this story is told about a black or brown person/family? What messaging have you bought into? What beliefs have you been taught that have been accepted without question? And how do these beliefs play out in the decisions you are making each and every day?
Poverty is not causal to the atrocities that are widely considered the ugly underbelly of this “great” nation, it is an effect of calculated actions taken by generations of white men and women who seek to destroy black and brown people.
Question everything. Examine thoroughly everything. Seek Context and Understanding. And then live by those idealistic principles you have been taught..to “love your neighbor” and “treat others as you want to be treated”. Stop living as a passive observer in this world and start using your agency to create the world as it ought to be.