Saturday, September 24, 2005

Recently, on a trip to a certain American city which shall remain nameless, my friend drove me around pointing to new housing developments and commenting on areas of "new money" versus that of "old money". I responded politely, politically and socially correctly, as one would do with a friend, as I noticed how she distinguished the new money neighborhoods from the old. The smaller yet more than adequate dwellings were the new money communities. I suppose upwardly mobile and in some cases just plain working class folks who want the amenities of great schools and safe, clean neighborhoods live there. Then there's the old money hoods distinguished by huge garish houses sitting side by side, side by flippin' side. My friend quoted the cost of some of these homes and I thought to myself, because I want to be socially accepted and I wouldn't want to offend her having been so kind as to pick me up from the airport, if I pay a gazillion dollars for my home I no more want to see my neighbors as to have to listen to them take piss or shower. Who pays that much money for a house in spitting distance to the next? Better yet, the socially conscious voice in my head is calculating, new money, old money, well where the hell do the no money people live? That's a no
brainer. The no money people live in the city. The rapidly deteriorating inner sanctums of most cities, like New Orleans. I've never been there. But I know about all the convention and tourism money that is spent in the French Quarter. I know about the parties and drunken slovenliness of the folks who to there to celebrate Mardi Gras. I know about the history of the gulf, the intermingling of so many cultures resulting in an intoxicating flavor of Americana that one would ask why not visit New Orleans-- the birth place of jazz, the home of the French Quarter, the land of good food and drink; the best place to party? I don't want to go to New Orleans. Even if they rebuild it and pave the French Quarter with gold. I don't want to go there because the secret is out, America hates its poor, old and heaven forbid you're old, poor, and black. In the surrounding areas of this tourist Metropolis lived a segment of society that is generally hidden or other wise rendered invisible. They're not invisible anymore. We know they exist and now they're coming, through no force or motivation of their own, to our cities across the nation. Where will they live? Where do “no-money” people live when they have no place to go?
Blog 2

My friends argue as we eat lunch, munching on vegetarian middle eastern
wraps from the local coffeehouse and homemade banana nut muffins with
chocolate chips and extra wheat germ added for healthy measure. "It's not
racism; it's classism!" says Kevin, who agrees with Colin Powell that the
crisis in New Orleans exposes how people earning under $10,000 a year
live, and that just so happens to disproportionately affect people of
color. "And that is racism!" Jen retorts as we sit around the lunch table
overlooking the courtyard that is starting to show signs of the shifting
seasons. The grape vine crawling up the brick faE7ade of the old
building is beginning to turn from a lush green hue to tones of gold,
brown and red.

"Does it matter?" I ask. "Why do we need to compartmentalize?"
Oppression is oppression. They're all intertwined. It is no coincidence
that those making under $10,000 a year are the people from the margins of
society. Those with the least opportunity afforded them. Look at who was
left. Primarily black, yes. But many other features as well. Sick
people. People who could not walk. People on oxygen. People with mental
illness. People with addictions. People with little privilege. But

I agree that it is helpful to critically analyze what went wrong, to point
the finger at those to blame, to demand changes. But we must do this in
the name of all people. It does not help our cause to separate ourselves
from each other. To name ourselves as more oppressed than the other. To
argue racism versus classism. We must uphold one priority: the eradication
of oppression of all people.

But I wonder, can someone eating couscous, tofu and wheat germ understand,
I mean truly understand, oppression and survival? Can we sit in an ivory
tower and do anything more than pontificate the politics of oppression? I
don't think the people I saw standing on the bridge waiting for water and
food to arrive would hold a conversation about racism versus classism.
Not during their moment of crisis; not in the more secure confines of a
shelter; and not even in the sanctuary of their rebuilt lives. Only
privilege allows for such discussion.
Blog 3

Wendell Butler and I met in his office on the 8th floor of the 3M building in East St. Paul. I was there to ask him for money. I helped run a small social service agency that believed and knew (people research these things)that the distance between teen mothers and healthy, happy children can be bridged if they: 1) aren’t isolated, 2) know what to realistically expect from a 6 month old, a nine month ld, a 14 month old, etc.; 3) had the life skills that got them thinking about their future. Wendell was in the private sector, helping our cause along in a time when welfare reform was telling him that much of the work of being a safety net for poor families should be provided by the private sector as welfare reform moved folks from welfare to work. Wendell was a black man with a kind and straight-forward disposition. From my vantage point – a person begging him for money; a person who was paid probably four times less to beg him for money than he was to give it – I couldn’t tell whether he had ever been an oppressed black man; whether he was conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. Even, rather he was rich or just middle class. But the conversation showed me what I really needed to know about him. The man had common sense. “I am,” he said during our conversation about how nonprofits would fare in a time of government cutbacks, “the biggest private social service funder in St. Paul. And no one has made a meeting with me to say, ‘we’re taking away the safety net from a couple tens of thousands poor people in St. Paul. What are you in for?” “Now,” he said. “I believe in the private sector taking responsibility for the public good. Of course I do. Why else would I do this? But until they show me that they have done the math about the private sector taking on the problems, I don’t believe them when they talk about the private sector stepping in.” Wendell Butler’s words have come back to me often in the years that I’ve examined the conservative and liberal approaches to the public good. I thought about Wendell Butler when a prof at the Humphrey Institute questioned whether the ultimate goal of the Bush administration was to have “faith-based air traffic control.” But I never thought about Wendell more than during Katrina. Watching the poor left behind, I thought to myself, “No one did the math. We have ___ million people in the delta. ___ million have cars. That leaves ___ million. Who’ll fill in the blank?” And, swear to God, I’m a liberal democrat, but private bus, public bus,Lutheran bus, born-again Christian bus, federal bus, state bus… I really wouldn’t have cared who picked them up. As long as someone had a plan. And we’ve all seen what sort of repercussions move through our conscience when no one does. Isn’t doing the math the least we can ask from our federal government? From their vantage point, where the public good can be seen? If it is an administration that believes in faith-based initiatives – and the people vote them in – isn’t the least we can ask is that that faith-based government do the math to understand how the whole job will get done under their model? If it’s a socialist government that gets elected, I’d ask the same thing. What % gets done from taxpayers’ dollars? What percentage from corporate philanthropy? From private wealth? From the donations of the citizenry? Isn’t that the least we can ask?
Blog 4
The blind woman on t.v. said it best. She was being interviewed in her living room, her seeing eye dog trotting in a circle around her. When the rescue workers reached her house, it was half submerged in water. She was pretty hungry, too, and so was the dog. But they would only take her, they said – no pets – so she’d decided to stay. Now another week had gone by, and the rescue workers had come back. This time they’d take both of them, Ida May and Rick.

The reporter asked, “Where do you think you’re headed, now that you’re finally getting out of here?”

And Ida May replied, “ I have no idea where I’m going…. nothing is certain.”

Then she stopped. The milky whites of her eyes and their unmoving centers seemed fixed on some invisible point in the high distance.

“Let me say that a little bit differently,” she resumed. “I have no idea where I’m going, but I am absolutely certain that God knows where I’m going.”

She stopped then, looking triumphant. And I thought, yeah, Ida May, I’m with you.
Blog 5:

The on-rush of significant catastrophes is getting overwhelming, and the professional media throws out the term compassion fatigue before the details of what is happening in Iraq, New Orleans and Mississippi are even clear. How could I be tired of caring before I’m even clear what I care about?

In the week of Katrina, I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the disappointment that my barber, the policeman whose hair he cut, the nurses I met with and all of my in-laws felt about the national response to people trapped in New Orleans. Eating a quick meal out, I’d hear the people at the neighboring table expressing their shock over the racist neglect that the victims faced. All sorts of people were talking about why people were abandoned in the outer parishes, and they were all outraged. The winds of the hurricane were historically destructive, but there was something in the response and the lack of preparation for it by political cronies that was criminal.

How would we begin to understand the nature of the crime, if only to prevent it reoccurring? We needed to talk among ourselves. And the discussions veered into basic questions of class and race. The discussions weren’t always perfect, but they were nearly universal and seemed heartfelt to me. A friend speculated that only the privilege of some allows for these discussions, and that those experiencing the most suffering wouldn’t look at things in term of race or class.

I know the impatience with polite discussion of suffering. It’s common among my peers. Sometimes it seems like we haven’t earned the right to empathize with lives we’ve never lived. We become frustrated with all the complicated rationalizations and politics of theories, and we yearn for simple and direct action. A thirsty child wants water, not a lecture.

But the nurses and the in-laws, the policeman and the barber who all joined me in trying to understand what went wrong, cared about the injustice of man and nature. What they say about the realities of racism and class difference as they protest these injustices seems like the best conversation to me. They care but feel powerless to help. They try to understand grand social forces and bad societal behavior because they don’t want victims to suffer further. They want to understand so that they can help. What better cause should we address with our privilege? We may fall into abstractions as we try to understand, but not even the least among us can slip the bonds of abstraction.

And I know that people, mostly black and poor, trapped on a bridge, under fire from sheriffs who block their escape from tragedy, know about racism and class oppression. And I know they had some long conversations, on a night caught between floodwaters and men with guns, about injustice. It seems to me that we who aren’t faced with abject suffering everyday (or today) have been slowly taught to understand race and class by those who are. Racism and the words that describe it weren’t solely invented in an ivory tower.
Hello to everyone in the MLS associated writer's group. I've set this blog up for us to do our bloggy best. I'll add the e-mailed blogging we did last week, and we can take it from there. I'll try to set it up so that everyone can post, and we can figure out over time how, and how often, we want to use this venue.

Most obviously we can use it to schedule the next meeting:

October 29th, 10 am

We can use it to post any of our writing that we would like to get feedback on. The comment function for each post would easily allow quick responses to any writing posted.

We can use the blog to comment on events, things we've read, or whatever else is on our minds.

Nice meeting this morning. Everyone who read is on to something, and needs to keep going.