Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The All-American Hate Crime

"Where the poor have now become the enemy"--Iris DeMent

Yesterday, I was called upon by a colleague to write letters in support of an initiative to make sure that my college's anti-discrimination policy includes language protecting the rights of everyone despite sexual orientation. I, of course, am supporting this work, and I am also biting my tongue until March 9th when this is decided one way or another because one of the tools being used against the organizers is the notion that opening the doors to sexual orientation is going to result in an unrealistically long list of groups claiming discrimination.

Still, I have been interviewed innumerable times by diversity committees on campus, sat in on their meetings and petitioned my grievances and never, not once, had them do anything to address another concern even more pervasive. They give lip service then turn around and ignore it.

What I always bring up is the issue of class. There are innumerable ways in which students on this campus face hostile environments and bigotry if they are from poor or lower income homes, and this is made doubly and trebly insidious by the fact that many of my county's poor are white and because the stereotype of the county is that everyone here is relatively comfortable. It's not true. 40,000 people in my county alone, as many people as ever lived in my hometown (before downsizing) live at or below what the Federal government calls the poverty line (which is a ridiculously conservative estimate in real economic terms). Many more live in economic desperation, and of course at the community college where I work, a greater percentage than the county as a whole struggle with poverty to try to put themselves through school.

Just last year, despite petitions of support and the voiced sympathy and concern of a number of school guidance counselors I talked to, I watched a student friend of mine lose her financial aid because of the small amount of life insurance money she inherited (less than enough to pay for her remaining tuition) when her father died. I've had innumerable students bounced from my rolls and then have to plead for me (not that they had to plead to me, but that was the dynamic) to let them back into class because their tuition check bounced--standard operating procedure. It's a regular thing to hear hate speech about people on welfare from some students assuming that no one in ear shot is on welfare (although almost always one of their fellow students is and, sometimes, lets them know).

I certainly raise these issues with my classes, but there is no language--even in our toothless anti-discrimination diversity committee mission statements--that takes a stand on discrimination against the poor. And, of course, that's because our entire society is based on discrimination against the poor. It's American to declare the poor the enemy. We can't address this without addressing economic justice issues, and we won't address fundamental economic justice issues because it is "un-American" to do so.

I, of course, don't believe that's the part of the American identity that should go on living, any more than racial slavery should (and, believe me, I'm not naive enough to think that's over), but that's the reality of the identity as it currently exists--that identity promoted by all conventional two-party politics.

People talk about hate crimes being on the rise without ever addressing this issue. I listened to a 15 minute broadcast about the church burnings in Alabama without hearing any one once suggest this was some sort of significant common denominator. But what do 10 churches in the area of Bibb County, Alabama have in common? They are all poor.

What did the three homeless men beaten (one to death) by white thugs in Florida have in common?

What do the vast majority of the victims of Hurricane Katrina have in common?

The victims of Hurricane Delphi in Detroit?

The 45 million Americans without medical insurance (not to mention the many who die from medical neglect and inadequate insurance coverage)?

The 2269 service men and women who've died in Iraq (not to mention the minimum estimate of 28, 427 civilians who've died since the war started)?

They're almost all poor, and we discriminate against the poor as a matter of course.

Until America seriously rises up and demands economic justice for all, this will be the one category of hate crime all but universally sanctioned by our government--and by my workplace--leaving none of our hands clean.

Until "poor-on-poor crime" is understood as a symptom of genocide just as it's understood when we talk about "black-on-black" crime, then we haven't made a baby step out the back gate toward this reckoning.

But I'm biting my tongue until March 9th.

I wonder how many Americans will die for being poor between now and then?


Susan McG said...

Bravo, Danny! How is it that Americans can believe that we live in a classless society while at the same time believing that the poor deserve their poverty? This reminds me of my Western Civ class; the teacher asked what it meant to be "free" and if we had real freedom. Most people (okay, everyone but me) believed they were free to do whatever they want. The discussion eventually hit on the relationship between money and freedom: are we really free or free only to do those things we can afford to do? Does money determine our choices? Only a few people changed their opinion to believe that money made a difference. The others insisted that hard work would pay off, that the whole pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth was the real path to the American Dream, that we get what we deserve.

With our country's mistreatment and scorn of the poor, God help us if we get what we deserve.

Danny Alexander said...

That's a great story, Susan.

It reminds me of the way my friend Nelson Peery told me freedom was defined under apartheid in South Africa. The Africans were considered "bird free," free as the birds to die if they failed to survive, and the government was free of any responsibility for their fate.

Thank you for this!