Rather by accident I have been confronted with several incidences in the past few days of the way things are stacked against the poor . During my visit to Richmond, Virginia for a job interview with a college, I was put up in a very pricy, very ornate, very Southern hotel. This hotel likes to evoke images of a time when I would not have been allowed to stay in it, the antebellum era. They are willing to come a little into the twentieth century by having some iconography and story telling about rich white people in the 20s and 30s who used the hotel as a stopping point between Florida and New York, but that is about as far as they come. The poster in the little museum down below the grand staircase has a poster of famous people who have stayed there. There is not one person of color listed even though the little museum claims to be memorializing events between 1895 and 1995. Most of the staff is, of course, black, livery and all.
On Monday I decided to take a before dinner walk to get a feeling for the city, this being my first trip to Richmond. Within two blocks I realized I had better get my derriere back to the hotel. Lots of street people and rough looking characters, all of them of color, were hanging out on the sidewalks. They did not harass me, they spoke, and move aside to let me pass, but their glances told me they considered me an alien, if I too was of color. The contrast of the hotel guests, almost all white, and the street people, almost all of color, struck me hard. What exactly had the white people in the hotel done to give them the privilege of being waited on and cowtowed to while these people were obviously struggling. Spare me the talk of responsible decisions, drug usage ( I am pretty sure some of the white folks in the hotel used drugs too and not all of them made responsible decisions I am sure) no, there was something else at play here, the poor versus the non-poor. Even though my example was color connected I was not naive enough to believe that was the general case. Most poor people in America, like most rich people in America, are white, despite that the Republican candidates are trying to convince people otherwise.Most people who have babies out of wedlock, a primary cause of poverty, are white, most people on food stamps are white, most people on welfare are white, most people on disability are white, most people on SSI are white. And spare me the percentage crap. We do not pay people by percentages, we pay them by individuals.
But why are they poor? We need poor people, of course. Nobody grows up wanting to work at McDonald’s or to change sheets in a five star hotel, or even be a Starbucks barrista. We need them. So we make sure we have them. Let’s see if we can dissect the way people get poor. You are born into a poor family. This poor family, if it is of color, lives in a neighborhood of poor people . If you are white it is possible that your family can live at least on the fringes of a a middle class neighborhood, but let’s presume that of color or white you live in a poor neighborhood. If that neighborhood is poor then it is highly likely you are being sent to a poor school. Poor schools are , almost without exception, poor performing schools with mainly unprepared and in some cases uncaring teachers. This means you have several strikes by the time you are say, 9. Researchers and scholars have shown that children from middle class and upper class families hear 4 million more words before they get to kindergarten than poor kids. Your kindergarten teacher is likely to be white and less likely to be poor. That means she speaks standard English and has been exposed to lots more words than a poor person of the same age. This will be reflected in the way she talks. That means her speech may be alien to you. I am not even going to do more than mention that if English is not your first language you are in even more trouble.
So, little TJ, the poor kid starts school behind. This is his story. Fewer words, familiar with different mores and customs, teacher is of a different race and culture and socioeconomic class. The school is most likely not even in my neighborhood. The materials used do not necessarily represent my culture. The illustrations in them do not look like my house, my family, my neighborhood or my mode of transportation. My clothes are not the best and some of the other students let me know that. I am different and behind. When my parents ask me questions about school they are tentative or even a little nervous anticipating my answers letting me know there may be something bad about school. Some of the kids in my class already know how to read. I do not even know the alphabet because nobody ever taught it to me. I am behind. Some of the kids talk about having an ipod or even a laptop computer. i do not have those things, neither does my family, although my mom sometimes goes to the library to use a computer so I know what that is. I am behind.
TJ will probably be placed in a slow track. His instruction will be in the range of less information or remedial. It is unlikely he will ever be removed from that track and moved to a higher one. When my oldest son went to kindergarten in the 1970s there were 6 tracks in the class. Mike and three other students were in the highest track and were sent to the First Grade classroom for part of the day. Lest you think things have changed in 40 years, my grand daughter Ella, who is in Second grade is in a special group of four kids who get to go to enrichment classes on Friday. Only four when Mike was in kindergarten and now only four when Ella is in second grade. Some are chosen. Are they smart? Yep. Are they better prepared? Yep, Could they both read before they started school? Yep. Is that because we are better than other people? Nope. Lots of variables, opportunities and yes, some choices, contributed to their academic achievement.
Let’s get back to TJ. He has been in the lowest level of academic instruction now for five years, and is in fourth grade. The other kids know what being in his group means and tease him about being dumb. Even in classes where he is not tracked, like music and gym he may find himself an outsider, or he may excel in them, getting some validation and self-esteem in the process. We like what we are good at and we are good at what we like. The fact that TJs gym teacher may have a different view of him than his Language Arts teacher may mean he finds himself succeeding in gym. The message sent is clear. He is an athlete, not a scholar. So TJ does not practice his reading and math which remain challenging–his teachers are not pushing him in either subject, but he does practice his basketball and dodge ball. His 5th and 6th grade years are better, he is a star on the elementary school basketball team.
Then he hits middle school, which for our purposes starts at 7th grade. There is kink in the works here. To play basketball, his best subject , if you will, you have to maintain a certain grade point average. TJ has hit a wall. But, the coach who is familiar with TJ sees a way out. If TJ can get put in Special Education classes the rules will be different. TJ’s parents are by now firmly convinced, after seeing 6 years of low grades on grade cards, that TJ is not too bright, agree that he loves basketball, should be able to play and therefore, they sign him into Special Ed. Classes are smaller, he will get more attention they are told and will stay eligible for sports. Problem solved.
So TJ stays in Special Ed and stars on the basketball court through his senior year. This could be seen as a blessing, after all, without basketball TJ might have dropped out of school, getting tired of failing at one thing after another. But now in his senior year TJ notices that colleges, at least most of them he would like to attend, are not interested in him. He is not that tall and although he starred in high school his skills are not sufficient for college play. TJ is back to failure. Other students are getting scholarships, being recruited for their brains or their brawn, but not TJ.
He now finds out he does not have enough credits to graduate. It seems that he kind of let down after basketball season and his grades even in his Special Ed classes are not sufficient. He also had to be mainstreamed into some required courses, like government and he failed that.
TJ is now 18, no diploma, no direction, no nothing. What should he do? Why get a job New Gingrich would say, perhaps as a custodian? Easier said than done.
If TJ does get a low paying job, all that he is probably qualified for ( after multiple years in classes that presume you are not bright, you will not be bright anymore, even if you once were), he will struggle. He will probably live in his old neighborhood where food is more expensive, there is a food desert for decent food at any price, it is not safe, it is not clean, it is not a place to engender hope. TJ cannot take advantage of sales. If Walmart has toilet paper, buy one get one free for a certain large size he does not have the money to buy one, and even if he did he has no car to get to Walmart. He cannot buy a house or an apartment, where would he get the down payment? And the bank would not give him a loan anyway. He might father a kid or two. He will not set out to be a deadbeat baby daddybut he barely makes enough food to keep himself going and he sees the disappointment and hears about the disappointment of the baby’s mom each time they are together, time to move on, his self-esteem cannot take anymore failure. Failed as a student, failed as a basketball player, failed as a mate, failed as a daddy.
We will leave TJ searching while we turn our lens to society. What choices could TJ have made differently to change his path? His fate was in some ways sealed by the age of 6. Should we hold 6 year olds accountable?
Why doesn’t society understand that we are designating some people as disposable, often based on nothing more than their color or lack of money, or both. I know why.
We need poor people.