Perceptions Of Poorness
This morning I was reminded of how easy it is for people from all walks of life to give poor black young people advice on what exactly they need to do to succeed in the United States. According to some white billionaire somewhere, all black youths need to do is get a computer and work hard and apply for opportunities. According to the billionaire, success really isn’t that complicated at all. If black people would just do better they would do better. This morning, this was one of the topics of discussion on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes.
Social conservative Jonathan McWhorter was on the show and he argued that the only problem with the statement was the fact that it came from a wealthy white fat cat. The same message was said by Bill Crosby and other black people who feel that the social condition that finds the black community at the bottom end of every measure of success in this country is the sole responsibility of people in the black community. These people point at the few exceptions of black people doing exceedingly well as proof that any black body can make it if they are talented and/or work hard to overcome any obstacles that someone might perceive as an inhibitor to black people’s success.
It should be noted that the statement that black people should practice individual responsibility is a very true statement. It is just as true as the statement that white people should practice individual responsibility or anyone else for that matter. The difference is that we seem to point to this statement as the primary solution to all the ills that have perpetually plagued the black community since black people were part of this collective.
Black people practice individual responsibility just as much as anyone else. Yes there are exceptions. There are black people whose personal work ethic is lacking. But the same is true for any broad slice of the population. There are white people who have a poor ethics. But somehow, the few white people who are the exception to the rule don’t define the white community the way the exceptions in the black community become the iconic definition of what it means to be black in America.
Just before the bombastic column advising black people to work hard, we have a conservative presidential candidate make the suggestion that poor people don’t have a work ethic and therefore child labor laws should be eradicated or at the very least modified so that children can become the janitors of their schools in order to learn what it means to work for a living without resorting to prostitution, dealing in drugs, and/or some other illicit activity. People who support the presidential candidate that made this outrageous contention applaud this man as a visionary with bold new ideas to lead the country back to prosperity. But there is nothing bold or new about entrenched concepts of prejudice that sustain concepts of discrimination.
Yes it is true that young black people should work hard to overcome their obstacles. But when there is evidence that the unemployment rate of black people with a college education is higher than white people with criminal records it should become clear that simply working harder isn’t going to overcome the inherent racism and systemic discrimination that has forever haunted this country and continues to permeate our politics, hiring practices, business practices, enforcement of our justice and legal systems, educational system, medical system, and so many other components and categories that constitute our general culture.
Despite what some people see before all of our very lives, some of us continue to believe that we live in a culture where discrimination is something that is long into our past and if black people would just do better everything would be better. The only reason worth mentioning as a cause for such a large segment of our population not doing well is because of their common propensity to not work hard enough because they are too ignorant of the rules of give and take and are too dependent on a welfare entitlement mentality and are just sitting around expecting the proverbial handout.
I would imagine that the language used today to describe the urban poor is quite similar to the language used to describe the enslaved people back in the day when institutionalized slavery was such an important factor in the development of the country’s economy. Those people don’t have a very good work ethic which is why they don’t have anything and you have to crack a whip to motivate them. Make these people suffer and you’ll get results.
The mentality that some of the less fortunate amongst us deserve their lot because they are not like the rest of us is a social theory based on willful ignorance fueled by racism. Rich white people know nothing about what it is like to deal with the inherent bigotry that comes from dealing with racism. When you are poor, even when you have a work ethic from watching all the people around you going to work day in and day out, somebody is quick to dismiss the inequality that you are subjected to on a daily basis as nothing more than your own lack of character to do better for yourself because of the neighborhood you come from.
The problem is not the fact that some poor people come from neighborhoods where nobody has a work ethic. The problem is that there is a perception from people who can control the conversation and influence public opinion that are so engrained in their prejudice against poor people that they are willing to believe that these people do not have a work ethic despite anything and everything around us that supports the contrary.