Saturday, March 08, 2008

Social Grumbling

What'm I up to now, six posts in one weekend? Feels like...

Anyway. Time to get socially relevant. Being the second Saturday of the month, it was the day that our neighborhood association meets. I'm the recording secretary. This tiny little historic neighborhood is about 99% black. I'm in the 1% minority. I agreed to be secretary because the non-profit that's backing us sent us on a nice weekend retreat last fall, put us up at a posh hotel and lavished us with t-shirts, tote bags, hats, pens, and other goodies and it seemed to me that if they ask me to help out this way, it wouldn't kill my ass to say yes and commit myself for a year. I've certainly been doing it since I moved here -- attend nearly every meeting, become a block captain, walk up and down knocking on doors getting people sign a petition to get speed bumps, make 5000 fish sandwiches on a cold November afternoon, sweep and pick up trash for several hours, watch kids on the Astro Jump so they wouldn't kill themselves, and escort a couple of college kids through the community getting people to fill out surveys and win a Wal-mart gift card.

I grew up in an all-white community. My church has recently been running a series on "sundown towns," which are designed to exclude minorities, either by making them feel unwelcome via town charter, redlining or other bureaucratic methods, or by outright threats of violence toward those who lingered. My hometown was such a place. But I grew up in the Civil Rights era and we were taught, on a consistent basis, that black people were the victims of evil whites. It was a very idealistic time. Some people I grew up with were prejudiced (especially the parents of my classmates) but I really had the idea that it was just a matter of people being nice to each other.

I still had very little interaction with black people until I was in my mid-30s. Every place I lived and worked was overwhelmingly white. This changed when my ex and I started our own retail-type business in an urban area and found ourselves hiring the people who lived there. We began to experience first-hand the complexities of social relationships. The good-guy/bad-guy lines weren't as clearly drawn as they were on the ABC Movie of the Week. Later, I went back into office life and the demographics this time around were different. I worked with and for African-Americans. This continued after the divorce when my resources were not as abundant as they had been, and I lived in lower-income areas. I had a sense of standing outside myself and wondering if it was okay to be annoyed at neighbors who wandered around at all hours of the night talking loudly and waking me up, and whose kids always seemed to be coming to the door asking for food and money. I started having thoughts like, we're all the same under the skin ... aren't we??

I worked in an office that was about 65% black, and there was an enormous amount of distrust between the races. Each group seemed to keep to itself. The rules in the place were very restrictive. Very little wiggle-room and it was ridiculously easy to get written up for stupid things. One manager said (in a whisper, of course) "If there weren't so many blacks here, we wouldn't have so many rules, but they take advantage every time." There were also whispers of "If a black person breaks a rule, we have to give them a pass the first time, otherwise we'll get sued for discrimination." There were people of both races who firmly believed that every person of the other persuasion was "out to get them."

So, here in this new town where I live now, I'm back to working in a nearly lily-white office. I know there are minorities in the company, but most of them seem to be in the warehouses in far-flung locations. My home, however, is in "the hood."

I really like where I live and have very few regrets. I remember the day the real estate agent drove us through this section. He knew better than to say anything negative. He probably thought it was strange that this midde-class looking white couple was specifically looking for a house here, but he didn't see our finances. We're not in the best shape. It's just a fact of life. I've never made any kind of big bucks and my husband's income fluctuates wildly. Neither of us is hugely interested in opulent living because neither of us ever lived that way. He was very poor. Shoes patched together with duct tape -- that kind of poor. Bad teeth, bad bones, bad nutrition -- that kind of poor. I did better because I was an only child and my parents sacrificed a lot for me, but neither of us was ever spoiled. The 13 years I was married to Doug are probably the closest I ever came to being "upscale," but he was incredibly stingy with me because I didn't earn as much as he and he didn't believe that the higher earner should pull most of the weight. So he stashed his money away and had plenty when we split. And I was too dumb to try going after it when we divorced. So I've basically struggled ever since. I like to think that I "could" have a lot more money if I were inclined to go after it, but truthfully, I'm content to be able to pay the bills on time and have a few modest goodies (panty hose without runs, Stouffers instead of Michelina's, high-speed internet) when I want them. I had no interest in a McMansion. The last house we had was 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom. This one is newer, and it has 2 bathrooms. There are many, many things that need improving here, but I am truly happy. I don't care what the neighbors look like. Actions are the only thing that matters, and the overwhelming majority of the people around here are good and decent. I accept that perspective and viewpoint are going to be different; I can't change history. But people are people; that's all there is to it.

So, we moved here pretty much knowing what to expect. My next-door neighbor, Paul, is a character. He's retired from a utility company and he's a terrible alcoholic. Keeps his yard a mess, but is trying the best he can to improve his house. His buds come over and work all day when the weather is nice. Then they take a break; out comes the bottle of moonshine and a six-pack of beer. The guys duck behind an old half-wrecked cinder-block toolshed instead of going inside to use the bathroom. But I feel a genuine warmth fro m him, his friends and his extended family and am happy to have him for a neighbor.

The people on the other side of us ... well, I have very little idea of who they are, because they just come and go like the tides. This time last year they were trying to fix the place up. But they had no phone and were coming to our door sometimes at 4am asking to use the phone, asking for food, even asking for clothes. We gave them hats, scarves and even jackets. I popped popcorn for them. Other people on the block said not to give them anything because they'd keep coming back.

Well, they eventually quit coming to the door, but we did find a few things missing off our back deck (before we got wise and started locking everything up). Still, no one seems to live there permanently. Someone brings in old cars (often big stretch limos) and keeps them in the driveway for months on end. Boats, too. The owner of the house lives somewhere else; he's 80-something and during the summer, he comes over, trades his walker for a lawnmower and cuts the grass. I think eventually the house will just be torn down. He'll likely die and the taxes will go unpaid, and that will be that.

One of my earliest friends in the neighborhood was named Rita. She always sat outside and when we first moved here, we enjoyed walking to the local stores and around the streets to explore. That's how I got to know Rita. We talked a bit; she had two sons and one of them, from what we could see, was sort of limited. He didn't have a job; he just pushed a shopping cart around, picking up aluminum cans and bottles. Rita told me she'd been recently diagnosed with some sort of heart condition.

Last year there was a series of arson incidents close enough to our house that we could see the flames over the rooftops. The neighborhood gossip reached us: "That strange kid with the shopping cart did it -- his mother passed and he just lost it." That was how I found out that Rita had died. I had just started getting to know Rita and felt a great pull of loss finding out that I'd never see her out on her front porch again. I have no idea what happened to her son.

The president of the neighborhood association spotted me sitting outside one morning and immediately started inviting me to meetings. I went out of curiosity to see what everyday life was like here. Most people were very welcoming and I slowly got to know who everybody was. There were a lot of different ways to be involved, so now here I am. However, I WILL NOT be available for another officer position next year. Enough is enough.

My involvement with this group has been very eye-opening. I get to hear what people are really thinking, and two sides of some very public debates.

This town is typical of many in this country wherein the people feel that the public schools are going downhill and parents should get vouchers so they can send their kids to private schools. But it's a chicken-or-egg type question:

Did the parents bail on the public schools because the schools were so bad, or,
Did the public schools go downhill because the parents bailed?

Then there's the "soft bigotry of lowered expectations," coupled with what the Suothern Poverty Lw Center calls the school-to-prison pipeline.

Deborah, who works for the non-profit, told our group today that she was at a local school for a program and while she waited, she saw one kid just wandering the halls. He'd peek in one classroom door, then move on to another, but spent an entire class period just wandering back and forth while all the other students were in assigned classes. When she asked the hall monitor about this kid, the teacher said nobody could make him go to class, so he just did whatever he wanted. Better he wander the halls than the streets. And when the kid went by, he'd peer at the hall monitor from under a cap and say "Sup." The hall monitor would respond, "Yo, sup." Deborah was outraged. "What's this 'sup' business? Why isn't that kid at least being taught to say "Hello," "How are you," "Yes" and "No?" The underlying belief is, if that were a white kid, he wouldn't get away with wandering the halls all day and speaking in monosyllables. The soft bigotry of lowered expectations says, you can't expect more of the black kids, and if you try to make them obey rules, you'll get accused of racism, and lose federal funding. Or there will be a riot, so just let it be.

And then what happens when Yo Sup turns 18 and has been socially promoted up through 12th grade? If he's very lucky, he'll get a minimum wage job and/or stay with his momma who will somehow find a way to keep a roof over their heads. Probably by working 12-hour days until she drops dead of renal failure at the age of 56.

Meanwhile the white parents complain because some of the Yo Sups aren't content to wander the halls. They have bigger issues such as guns and drugs. But then the SPLC claims that when these kids act out, they're just being set up for the prison pipeline. That's why I've been holding back money from that organization lately. I want to hear what they have to say about this issue. Do they really understand it in 3 dimensions? Anything less just sounds like they're making excuses.


PG said...

I think part of what is meant by the "school to prison pipeline" is that children are moved from one big, punitive institution to another. For some kids, school isn't a place where you learn new things and occasionally even enjoy it; it's a place where you always seem to be getting in trouble.

In NYC, there is a huge police presence in some of the public schools, complete with metal detectors, and police employees deal with matters that in my rural high school were dealt with inside the school. A kid who cusses out a teacher, or even gets in a fight with another kid, in my high school was disciplined within the school. But in NYC, the same incident brings in the SSAs, who arrest the kid and take him to jail. The kids aren't regarded as schoolchildren, but as potential criminals. And while I understand why Mayor Bloomberg thinks that the same strict policing of the streets will fix the schools, it doesn't seem to turn out that way. What does work is to put the kids in an environment where they are much less anonymous. The small schools movement has done a great deal to reduce misbehavior in such schools, because the kids are in smaller classes, with more teachers, the principals know who the kids are, etc.

I believe very strongly in disciplining children and making sure they understand what is expected of them, but I think it has to be done in a way that communicates "I care about you and am doing this because otherwise your adulthood will suck," versus a way that communicates "You're another number to cross off my list and you stay in line because anything else causes me trouble." In other words, we need to treat schoolchildren as young people we find valuable, and not as miscreants we have to cage for a certain number of years.

Volly said...

Yes, I think you articulated this better than I could. It wasn't like this before the Reagan administration -- my high school experience was quite different. I remember once a rep from the NYCLU (I grew up on LI) came to our school and said that one of a student's fundamental rights was the right to make a mistake. I recall some of my classmates scoffing at this, saying it made no sense. But it makes a huge amount of sense. No one is born with good judgment. Sometimes it's just a matter of being in the right/wrong place at the time. We can all tell anecdotes about someone we knew (perhaps ourselves) who either walked away unnoticed from something that would have resulted in serious trouble ... or the opposite. Being the one who got caught "holding the bag." Sometimes it takes one devastating experience or close call to wake a person up. Better if it can happen at a young age. Youth used to be a safety zone. You screw up, you learn from it, and go on. The current environment is, as you say, seemingly engineered to take full advantage of the impulses of youth, turned against them.