Monday, July 25, 2016

A Window Into Rural Poverty- By a Teacher in Upstate New York

I teach in upstate New York at an elementary school that is designated by NYSED as "High Needs/Rural" I would like to share some of the experiences I had today while my colleague and I conducted home visits with the families of four of the 80 kindergartners entering our school this year. Two of the families we visited today are on varying degrees of public assistance. One family I would categorize as working poor and the other lower middle-class.

      In the two homes of families in need of public assistance, I was struck by the dimness.  Not one light on. I suspect one family had their electricity turned off. Neither of us heard even the hum of a refrigerator. So quiet. I think of my own children's and my lighting habits. How we take for granted being able to flip on the light to cheer up our space or do work not thinking about the little bit of extra $$$ it takes to create a warm, inviting, and workable atmosphere. I know how it makes me feel when I'm not in a comfortably lit room.  As I looked at the little girl clinging to her mother with her dirty and disheveled clothes, I began thinking about the impact being in a well lit school environment might have on her. Would the vacant look eventually be replaced by the tiny spark of a twinkle. Later, my colleague and I noted on the post visit form. "No twinkle" or even an eyebrow raised at the mention of things most 5 year old hearts would flutter over. Several  years ago I had this mother's daughter in 4th grade(now 20) Mom is approximately 45 years old and has three grandchildren of her own.  I knew she was a single mom and commiserated with her about the common struggles being one myself. She seemed to open up a little more after that. At the end of the meeting, I asked her what were some things she wished she could do for her daughter that she just can't because of financial limitations. Mom's answer: "Sometimes she asks me to buy her a book when we're out shopping and I just tell her 'Mommy can't do that right now.'"  How many times have my own kids come to me asking for a certain book they need to read for pleasure or school. We love to keep our books. Within minutes it's ordered on Amazon and in their hands within two days.
Libraries are of course an option, but limited transportation and incurred late fees are often a hindrance. One post visit note recorded: "Black teeth. In need of dental care." Was this little girl not talking or smiling because her mouth was in pain?

We visited with a young mom and dad (at the most 23) with their two young daughters. When asked if they had any concerns or questions before her daughter came to kindergarten she replied, "What happens if _______gets lice? Do I have to leave work right away to get her? Can she come back to school the next day? Her father won't have a car to come get her. I can't afford to miss work (single income) and school(she's going to college part time)" Luckily for our district the PTA has purchased the $20+ lice removal kits for the nurse to give families in need. I'm not sure if that's the case in every school. The  expenses of chronic head lice keeps adding up if you don't get rid of them the first time. All bedding has to be washed. Spray has to be purchased to spray fabric couches and chairs. An extra trip to the laundromat. What if you can't find a ride that day to get the spray and wash clothes? What if they don't have the money to take care of those things? Absences from school begin to rise. Hourly wage jobs don't give paid days off to stay home to watch their child while they treat them. We've had children miss dozens of days of school due to chronic lice issues. This can be a devastating cycle for children academically as well as socially. I don't care how discrete the nurse is, almost always the cat is out of the bag about what classmate has lice. You can imagine how mortifying and isolating that would be for a child. Mom also asked about free lunch. I could see the embarrassment in her face. This intelligent, hard-working mom told us she asked because although she worked full-time, her wages were not enough to put an adequate amount of the food on the table. Food stamps needed to supplement. Was she was also getting WIC I asked.  Since she worked full time and went to school, she had missed too many of the required meetings that are held 12 miles away. Was not allowed to recertify. It dawned on me that there must be many other families in our community that are missing out on this incredible nutritional benefit because they have no transportation to the meetings. We also discussed how expensive produce is at our local grocery store and not having access to larger chains where prices are more reasonable. I had a chance to speak with the Dad privately in the kitchen.  A scrappy, jittery, and smart guy. Shared that his greatest desire from childhood (also a child of poverty, divorce, and displacement) was to join the military and make a life better for himself than he had growing up. That was his ticket out. In our middle-class world we see college as a way to advancement. Someone coming from a world of poverty may see the military  as an road that leads to clean, stable housing and a way to ensure they and their family will never go hungry. His dreams were disrupted when he did not receive the needed medical waiver for his eye condition which minimizes his depth perception. When we first met, I saw right away he had an issue with his eyes. His left eye had a continuous shake. The only help he ever got for his eye condition was through the Lions Club. A free exam, new lenses in a pair of discarded frames probably circa 1982. On the bright side, he is hopeful that he will be able to pursue his dream of becoming a massage therapist. He is trying to learn everything he can about it on his own with borrowed books until he can go to school once his wife is finished. Practicing on his wife he said he "can just feel his anxiety disappear...something about the physicalness of it...making someone else feel good really helps me."  How many people in his situation are even aware of the mental health services available to them. Might not matter anyway since the services are about 20 miles away from our town. No car, no public transportation, no services.

The next home we visited was cozy, also dim, and happily cluttered. Two parents. Five children. Youngest was six months old. Mother was maybe 40 years old. About to become a grandmother for the first time. Her son (21) and daughter(20) are both becoming parents. Mom shared with me that she now works Wednesday through Sunday.  12 hour shifts as a waitress at a restaurant 18 miles away.  She tried to make a go of her own luncheonette here in town when I had her son two years ago. Working 80 hours a week and trying to keep afloat in a town that has lost much of its industry took its toll. Forced to shut down. As my friend and I clucked in admiration of her hard work,  told her how great she looked having just had a baby not so long ago, working 60 hours a week, AND managing not to lose her mind with her busy family she said, "I never took anything from nobody. We're making it."  There is still some shame here about having to accept any public assistance. Chances are if you shop at our local store someone you know will see you using your EBT card. Your neighbor just might be the cashier ringing you up. So many here go without. We have many hungry children. Evidenced by the great number of boxes of cereal my colleagues and I purchase each month to make sure everyone has a midmorning snack. These children are ravenous. Can't learn if you're hungry.

I hope these snapshots of rural poverty brings an awareness of some of the commonalities these families share with the urban poor. And that advocates from both areas can work more closely together to bring some much-needed educational, social, and emotional relief to these families.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How Poor Southern Whites Became Secondary Victims of Jim Crow


When the Jim Crow laws were passed in the Southern states between 1890 and 1912, requiring separation of the races in all aspects of public life, and when poll taxes and literacy tests were imposed which removed the vast bulk of Black voters from the rolls, poor whites were told that these measures were done for their benefit, and would make "the poorest white man the superior of the most elevated colored man." Many poor whites bought into this vision and became fierce defenders of segregation and white supremacy.
However, the psychological gains of "white supremacy" were not accompanied by economic ones. Indeed, the economic status of poorer whites actually declined after these measures were implemented. Here is what transpired
1. Many poorer whites were disfranchised by the same laws used to take away the vote from almost all Blacks.
2. With almost ALL Blacks and many poor whites disfranchised, southern elites refused to fund public education at the level which it was funded in other part of the country, even for whites. Literacy levels among Southern whites remained far below that of whites in any other part of the country.
3. With the bulk of the Southern working class not voting, Southern state government completely suppressed unions. The results were that Southern whites, even in all white industries like textiles, and in mostly white industries like mining, suffered terrible working conditions- low wages, long hours, use of child labor, and terrible vulnerability to workplace related diseases and industrial accidents
Southern elites promised poor whites a new day when Blacks were lynched, segregated and deprived of the vote.. What they got was poverty, illiteracy, and an early death from disease and industrial accidents
The lesson: Beware of powerful people who tell you, as a white person, that your security and well being depends on Black people being kept under more rigid control. The rights that are lost may include your own

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Billy Joel Gives 20,000 People A Chance "To Forget About Life for a While"


It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been coming to see
To forget about life for a while
Billy Joel, "Piano Man"
Yesterday, I joined with Liz, two good friends, and 20,000 other people for 3 hours of pure joy in Madison Square Garden. The occasion was a Billy Joel performance that had people singing, laughing, crying, rising to their feet and singing along with the songs. For three hours, I had no idea who in the crowd was a Trump supporter, a Clinton supporter, or someone who despised both candidates. We were all united in appreciation of an artist of supreme talent, who not only was an extraordinary entertainer, but who wrote songs that were part of the soundtrack of our lives.
It was almost as though Billy Joel knew how torn up and divided we were and did everything in his power to unite us. This was not only true in the overwhelming energy and passion with which he performed, but in his song selection. The 25 plus songs that he played were popular numbers that reflected on universal themes such as sexual longing, personal disappointment, lost youth, romantic love, and the joy of achievement against great odds-- songs that from the early 70's to the early 90's were ones that almost every working class or middle class American could identify with. He chose NOT to play what I think is his greatest song "Goodnight Saigon" because it would have broken the mood of affirmation and made people look at a time in our history when people are divided as they are now.
And I don't blame him for it. We NEEDED to be together last night, not worried about what our neighbor was thinking. As Billy Joel brilliantly commented in the song that made him famous, "Piano Man": sometimes we do need "to forget about life for a while."
That Billy was conscious of an extra need for this at this difficult time was conveyed in his final words after a kick ass encore performance of "Only the Good Die Young" featuring horn and guitar playing to die for. He told the audience
"Have a Great Summer. And Turn off the News"
For three hours, we were able to do just that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

We Have Seen This Bitterness Before: Reflections on 1968 and Now


I have many friends, most of them younger than me, who are terrified by the divisions in the country, by the violent acts that periodically add to the tension, and by an election which brings out a level of fear and anger they have never seen before.
Unfortunately, this is not new to me. I have vivid memories of the year 1968 and that Presidential election. We had a terrible war. Assasinations. Riots in every major city. Campus take overs. And a country divided down the middle over race and politics
I will give you snippets of this to put things in perspective. Race was a huge divider. There was bitter white resentment of Black urban uprisings and campus protests, fueled by a third party candidate named George Wallace, and used as a political platform in somewhat less visceral ways by the Republican candidate Richard Nixon. You could feel the tension on the streets, especially in neighborhoods which were undergoing rapid racial change. I vividly remember signs along the Cross Bronx Expressway which said "This is Wallace Country" as the line separating whites from Blacks and Latinos quickly moved from Tremont Avenue to Fordham Road. It also divided families. I was basically kicked out of my family for falling in love with a Black woman and adopted by her extended family, which had a base in the Bronx. Walking hand in hand through the city was like maneuvering a minefield. You never knew who was going to blow up at us
But it wasn't just race. It was the war, drugs and the "hippie youth culture too." I vividly remember driving through the Midwest with white friends on the way to Chicago, all of whom had long hair, and getting hate looks from parents while the children passed the peace sign. Some of my friends had been virtually disowned by their parents too, for growing their hair long, opposing the war, or participating in protests..
Those of us who were living through it saw no end in sight. Many of us thought we would die early deaths and that there would be a revolution or the emergence of some kind of fascist state. We had our apocalyptic fantasies and great music to fuel our fevered imaginations.
But though some people died, others burned themselves out, and families fractured, the nation survived and we stumbled on without our political system collapsing.
I suspect the same will happen now. We will hurt one another, and leave some lasting scars, but we will not turn into some unrecognizable dictatorship.
So friends, by all means worry, but do not despair. We will get through this. Damaged, but not destroyed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Baton Rouge: A Divided City by Dr Lori Martin


No, Baton Rouge is not burning. Baton Rouge is a city divided by many fault lines. A single street divides the city’s predominately white and black communities. North Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was killed, is under developed relative to south Baton Rouge. Access to emergency rooms, quality schools, healthy food, reliable transportation, and good jobs are limited, while health care complexes, blue ribbon schools, business and industry flow freely to the south. With the exception of a small section of Gardere in south Baton Rouge, which is predominately black, the sight of strong law enforcement presence is hard to find. Conversely, in several zip codes in north Baton Rouge, there is a noticeable police presence. Programs aimed at addressing homicides and violent crimes in predominately black areas are welcomed sites for many members of the dominant racial group but for some blacks in the city and for others the program is viewed as doing more harm than good. Such programs whether intentionally or unintentionally stigmatize both people and place and further increase the gap between blacks and whites who despite some claims have not forgotten the city’s tremulous racial past.
When whites talk about “the university” they are referring to Louisiana State University, while blacks refer to their beloved Southern University, a Historically Black College and University. For a time blacks had few educational opportunities as they were excluded from many public and private schools, colleges, and universities in the city.
Earlier this year I served as co-chair of a commemoration committee with Raymond A. Jetson, Pastor of Star Hill Church located near the site of Sterling’s killing, honoring men and women for their role in the nation’s first bus boycott in 1953. On the same day of the ceremony revelers were in the Spanish Town neighborhood riding on and watching floats as part of annual Mardi Gras festivities. Floats mocking the nation’s first black president, Black Lives Matters, victims of police brutality, among other offenses, were paraded down city streets. Some city residents could not understand why such public displays were viewed as offensive and accused critics of being overly sensitive and bowing to so-called political correctness. A tale of two cities is what we have in Baton Rouge and it is what has always existed.
For those unwilling to believe Baton Rouge was and is a city divided they need only view the Frontline documentary about the effort on the part of a large group of whites living in unincorporated municipalities in south Baton Rouge to secede from the city. While the stated purpose for the creation of the City of St. George, at least in part, was to have access to high-quality schools for area children, it was clear the new city would not resemble the existing city in terms of racial or economic composition.
In the weeks leading up to the shooting of Alton Sterling, the city was debating whether a school in 2016, in the city’s predominately white section should still carry the name of a legend of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee. The district voted to drop Robert E. from the title, but the school remains named Lee High School.
Controversial dress codes at establishments serving local college students on the city’s south side, which appeared to target young men of color, and the defense of such codes, also revealed the very different worlds blacks and whites in Baton Rouge occupy.
This is just a small window into some of the events leading up to the killing of Alton Sterling and the demonstrations that followed. The daily experiences of people of color from every end of the economic and educational spectrum are too numerous to list here. As a college professor and as someone actively engaged in community-based efforts to improve the quality of life for all residents, especially residents from historically disadvantaged groups, I get to see and hear what by colleagues, students, and neighbors must endure. It is therefore not surprising that many people, particularly many people of color, are concerned about transparency, fairness, and sometimes question “official” accounts.
No, Baton Rouge is not Ferguson, but Baton Rouge is a city in this nation like many others with a long history of treating people differently based upon the racial groups to which they belong. The entire nation is suffering and witnessing the consequences of a racialized social structure, which was in place before any of us were born and which far too few people are willing to challenge. It is a racialized social system, which privileges some and disadvantages other by race. It allows some people of privilege and positions of power and influence to look with distain on the oppressed all the while celebrating the oppressors.
Our failures to adequately confront racism in a way that will truly transform communities and the nation have brought us to this place in time. It has brought us to a place where I fear for the physical and emotional well-bring of my students and fellow citizens committed to social justice issues.
My students who are also veterans describe participating in a peaceful protest with a show of force reminiscent of their time in Iraq. My students and others report looking down the barrel of a gun, armored vehicles in sight, being thrown to the ground, and sitting in the back of police vehicles unsure of their offense, and worried about their future. Others report coming to the aid of small children in distress as their parents and siblings, who contend they were peacefully protesting, were detained.
Race matters. Race is not declining in significance. So many of us have been saying this for years. Knowing and understanding history is a double-edged sword. Understanding what is happening in Baton Rouge and throughout the nation is a blessing and a burden. On the one hand, I can provide context for what is happening to others finding the last few days events hard to wrap their mind around. On the other hand, I can be confident what is happening in Baton Rouge is likely to happen again, here or in some other place. Sadly, civil rights are bestowed upon some at birth, while others have to fight tooth and nail for basic human rights.
Increasingly, many are asked to “stay woke.” Many of us have “been woke” for a long time and with the killings in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas, now some people are beginning to hear the alarms. The future of race relations in the City of Baton Rouge and in the nation depends on many more people not merely hearing but responding to the alarms in a way that results in a more just and more equitable society. Mocking, dismissing, or diminishing the misery experienced by others are not viable solutions and will not move us forward.

Why Many Young Whites Identify with the "Black Lives Matter" Movement

Recently, I was at a wedding of two New York City public school guidance counselors, whose friendship circle was totally multiracial and where the dance floor featured Blacks and Latinos doing the hora (a traditional Jewish dance ) as if they were born Jewish and whites getting down to hip hop and funk with athleticism and flair
Now before you accuse me becoming a Kumbaya singing liberal trying to distrct from our very serious divisions and injustices let me say this. What Isaw last night helps explains why when Black people feel embattled or attacked, it reverberates throughout the society in ways that are difficult to ignore. More and more whites are parts of families and friendship networks that are multiracial and when their Black or Latino friends or relatives hurt, they empathize with the pain and take it personally.
These new forms of sociability, which I see among my own students, change the nature of the national conversation about race to one where whites do NOT speak in a single voice, and where many whites, especially those under 40, feel a powerful identification with demands for new policies emanating from the Black and Latino communities.
It also explains why there are many whites who identify with the slogan‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ and participate in protests organized under that banner

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Message to White People About Police, Justice and National Security


I defy any white person to tell me the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile make them feel more secure. These murders were an unmitigated catastrophe for the ENTIRE COUNTRY. Racial tensions, already high, are reaching a boiling point and there is no place for anyone to hide. Police and teachers will find their jobs more difficult; friendships will be strained to the breaking point and multiracial work places will become unbearably stressful. We cannot have a large portion of the country feel that the police are executioners as well as protectors. If you think that perception isn't widespread, you haven't been listening very well to your neighbors and co workers who happen to be Black.
If we want to move forward from this moment, we have to understand why there are so many police killings of this kind and make the changes needed in how police are deployed, trained, rated and promoted to reduce their occurrence in the future. And I don't mean racial sensitivity training, which I have no confidence in whatsoever. I mean demilitarizing police, and changing the way they interact with citizens on a day to day basis, placing defusing conflict and building trust over making large numbers of arrests.
It is in the interest of all of us, including police officers, to move in this direction. We can't keep doing what we are doing without making the country ungovernable.