Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fifty Years After Birmingham Sunday, Where Are We?

A day after the 50th anniversary of Birmingham Sunday, an article in the September 16th issue of the New York Times caught my eye. A white middle class family (consisting of a mom, a dad, and the requisite two children) living in a gated community in South Africa spent a month in a shantytown to better understand the mentality of those living in it. (See the article  in the NewYorkTimes/ September16,2013/ “Trading Privilege for Privation, Family Hits a Nation’s Nerve”).

The article paints a stark contrast between the few haves and many have-nots in South Africa. The family was able to learn much about what the people in the shantytown have to deal with and they forged some interesting relationships. Whenever people can understand each other across ethnic and class lines, it's a positive development.

It reminded me of two books written in the United States. One was Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, a memoir from the early 1960’s about his experience becoming black temporarily with the use of dyes and other such help so that he could know how it felt to be a member of a discriminated against minority group. The other was Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. In this book, Ms. Ehrenreich goes undercover as a minimum wage worker to see what it’s like to manage on $7 per hour jobs. Can we ever know what it feels like to be a member of the other group? Do the differences go beyond skin color to the point that we can’t comprehend? To Barbara Ehrenreich’s credit, she understood that because she could always return to her bank account, car, and other class privileges, she couldn’t know. Therefore, she only investigated the practical problems of securing housing and other resources on a very limited income.

As difficult and tragic as the problems were that gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, many issues were resolved thanks to the bravery of the people who challenged the then status quo. As arduous as that was to achieve, sometimes it feels as though we only fixed the easy problems. As Dr. King said at the end of his life, it costs the government nothing to integrate a lunch counter. He went on to challenge us to do a lot more to eradicate poverty. Soon after he challenged the economics of class and race, he was assassinated. While it has never been proven in a court of law, I will always believe that his assassination was neither a coincidence nor the work of one madman working on his own.

Now we are left with the intractable problems. The unemployment rate of blacks is three times that of whites. Their rate of people living in poverty is higher as well. How do we eradicate the class differences that have become so solidified in the past 20 years? For example, a person’s income of origin is more a predictor of ability to complete a four-year college degree than any other factor. Is it more important to work on understanding one another or on changing the conditions causing our class lines to solidify? It feels to me that the issue of class is still the pink elephant in the room in any discussion of race. Where do we go from here?       



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