When I was growing up, after my father lost his job, our family entered a world of poverty. Behind closed doors, hushed conversations about “how we’re going to pay the bills,” and “what are we going to do about the car?” and “did you hear that Ed’s getting evicted?” happened frequently. My brother and I would be sitting on the couch, where I pretended to watch cartoons, but instead strained my ears to try to know what was going to happen to us.
In this environment, the messages about our poverty were self-serving and paranoid. Rich people couldn’t have gotten rich without stepping on people as they rose up the economic ladder, or else they undeservedly inherited their wealth and unfairly looked down on us. Politicians were in the pockets of the wealthy, who needed people to be poor, and to stay poor, on the margins of survival to keep us from rising up and taking what was ours. “Trust me, son.” my father once told me. “This country will never do anything real to help poor people out. Those greedy fuckers at the top need us at the bottom and they can’t let us up or they’ll lose their Rolls Royces and caviar.” I was taught that the likelihood that any of us (me, my friends, our neighbors) would be anything but poor was infinitesimally small. God bless my mother, who always insisted that I get a college education, believing that a college degree was the only road out of poverty.
Our school system, I heard people say, was just a training ground for a life of manual labor, an attempt to give us goals that were achievable, in order to give us a reason to be scared of prison. Sure, I was learning math and vocabulary, but I was also learning how to keep quiet for long periods of time, how to comply with arbitrary rules, so that I could be a good employee who keeps his mouth shut and did what he was told. In Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall, I recognized the message in the song, “Another Brick in the Wall” (a.k.a “We don’t need no education.”).
In the video, some students are in a classroom, repeating the definition of an acre, when the teacher catches one of the students writing in his journal. He picks up the book, sees it’s a poem (a symbol of his individuality) and reads it out loud to the class, mocking him. The song begins, and we see the students in single file, walking into a huge machine, and coming out the other side with identical masks on. Their education has successfully made them into replicas of one another. The line of “bricks” continues marching, and enters another machine, which takes them in, and then spits them out the other side as ground meat. They have been consumed by the machinery of the system.
The messages about the police were similar. You certainly couldn’t trust them. They were the long arms of the system that wanted us to stay right where we are, thank you very much. If we were driving, and my father saw a police officer – anywhere, on the side of the road, behind us in traffic, passing us from the other direction, in a parking lot talking to someone – he would tell us to look straight ahead. There was anxiety in the car until the police were out of sight. When I was at home, roaming my neighborhood, I remember times when I saw a police officer driving by. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but still I would creep behind a tree or walk the other way. You couldn’t be too careful. If there was a dispute in our neighborhood, you only called the police for help as a last resort. Who knew what the police would do or say if we let them know us as people. If we let them in the house, they might find something that could get us into trouble. If we talked to them through our car window, they might flag something about our vehicle and give us a ticket. Better to just handle things ourselves.
When I was older, as I rose through the education system, I found my university classes to be increasingly encouraging of my individuality, rather than a hammer pounding my self into the dust. As I interacted with more and more people who had grown up in relative financial comfort, I began to realize that, just because someone owned a house didn’t mean that they had a history of stepping on the necks of the poor. My growing status and social capital brought with it an increasing ownership of the political process. Politicians represented me and my interests. I had something to lose and something to gain, and politics became an object for study, rather than a worthless waste of time. The neighborhoods I moved to became more and more middle class. When I’ve had trouble, I have called the police to come help me. I’ve noticed that, when the police drive by me, we make eye contact and the cops will give me the nod of acknowledgement.
Does that mean that those message I received early on are entirely wrong? I don’t think so. Some rich people have exploited others on their rise to the top, or at least had unfair advantages that help explain their success. A capitalist society does need people at different economic levels to function according to plan. The school system certainly serves as a training ground to teach people how to survive as adults at the income level that each school system represents. For example, many schools in impoverished areas have metal detectors, and look eerily similar to the housing projects in which their students live. Further, the opportunities that are presented (or not presented) to students are heavily influenced by the social class of the student. Do the police drive around poorer areas more than wealthier areas, and have differential expectations about the residents therein? It would be hard to argue otherwise.]
What happened to me is that I moved from one context to another, and the perspectives that people have in my new context about “how things work” are different than they are for people in my old neighborhood. One isn’t more true than the other. Both are short-sighted in some ways, and right on the mark in others.
Here’s what I’ve noticed. People who used to be poor, who grow up and rise out of poverty, can be divided into two groups. The first group concludes that their success proves that anyone can rise out of poverty, if they just work hard, put their noses to the grindstone, pull themselves up by their fucking bootstraps. There’s no reason to have compassion for people who are still back in the old life. If they hadn’t made so many bad decisions, or they had been more diligent at going after their success, they wouldn’t be there.
The second group is more likely to be grateful for the confluence of events, DNA, family and community experiences, that made success more possible. This second group is, by definition, more understanding of people who didn’t quite rise to the same level. After all, someone like myself might say, no one has had the same combination of life experiences and events as I have. Did I work hard? Sure. Could everyone have done the same thing that I have? Not likely.
In this American culture, we’re at a pivotal time when many different groups are making competing claims about fairness. Many poor people feel like the world is unfairly biased against the poor. Many black people feel like the world is unfairly biased against black people. The Trump election may indicate that some white people feel like the world is unfairly biased against them. Women talk about their own struggles for fairness in regards to compensation and body safety. LGBTQ activists have tried to teach us that homophobia is an obstacle to personal happiness.
If you grow up learning from those around you that one or more of your characteristics singles you out for unfair treatment, especially when that learning matches centuries of unfairness (e.g. slavery, sexual servitude, hate crimes), there are two ways to adjust to your reality. You have the option to habituate to it, treat it like it was inevitable, just try to avoid trouble. Psychologists call this attitude “learned helplessness.”
You also have the option to become sensitized, so that every slight, every look out of the side of an eye, every confrontation was evidence that your paranoia was accurate. You’d be on high alert, waiting for the next shoe to drop, and internally, ready to fight or flight. You would be convinced that the world is inherently unfair, and that you need to be ready and on your guard for the inevitable attack on your dignity.
What I find most interesting is the short-sightedness of most people, when it comes to their own claims versus the claims of other groups. If you’re gay, you’re likely to see how gay people can be portrayed in offensive ways, and how our language (e.g. “faggot;” or “that’s so gay.”) is part of a homophobic culture. If you’re a woman, you are likely able to sympathize with women who have found themselves in dangerous or compromising situations without their consent. If you’re poor, you can see and feel how money makes the world go around, and how not having enough money puts you in a stigmatized category that makes it difficult to get help and figure a way out.
And yet, despite our ability to see unfairness when it comes to our own victimization, we can be blind to the victimization stories of other groups. You agree that the poor have it hard, but racism against black people is over! Why can’t black people stop rehashing the past? You know that women have it hard, but gay people would avoid a whole host of problems if they didn’t go around flaunting their sexuality.
We see our own fears, oppressions, and status, and we can critique the system in relation to our own perspective from the lower side. But then, we may too easily dismiss the same epistemological knowledge when other people, who are low on other ladders, claim the right to their own critique. In the interest of greater understanding and kindness, let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt and work together to expose unfairness wherever it exists. As Martin Luther King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Isn’t it possible, since you’re convinced that you are right about how your life has faced unfair obstacles, that other people’s beliefs that their life has also faced unfair obstacles might be at least partially accurate? Are you in sole possession of truth? Did you just happen to be born into the one group that has legitimate claims to injustice, and everyone else is just making excuses? We’re all in this together. And the vast majority of us are on that treadmill, heading for the grinder. Let’s try to get as many of us off as possible.