‘All’ or Nothing

I’m going to take a stab today at bridging some deep chasms that we all run into, talking about race and class online.  This one is mainly aimed at white readers, who find themselves being jumped on for correcting things like “BlackLivesMatter” to more neutral “Actually, All Lives…”  And this one didn’t reach me easy.  It’s a journey, and like most of us, I started on the wrong side of this one.  Life is growth, and we all have growth to do.  So let me walk you past the obstacles that I found in my way.
When you’re a part of an in-group, the word “All” reads differently.  It reads as benevolent.  It says, “Not just us, but those other people, too, who don’t have what we have.” It grew in the soil of the 60’s civil rights struggles, that asked in-groups with power to admit those from outside it, in to share.
Language shapes thought. And this is the language that the parts of America who grew up feeling like a true part of America – welcome, and with access to the dream – first encounter the idea of justice through.
“For us all to be equal, we must break down racial designations, stop excluding, and most of all, stop thinking about race.” The task, to in-group members is one of inclusion, reflective of the language that it comes through. No more racial slurs. No more caveats. “One-size-fits-all approaches are the only that don’t show a race or gender bias,” goes the thinking.
We come to this idea because a lack of Inclusion is the way that we encountered the idea of the problem. “Out-group people had to be treated differently by law, and that was wrong” is how the problem was described to us. And so we thought that with de-segregation, it was over.
“All,” was the language of the 60’s civil rights struggle, framed in the language of the power structures that the 60’s took for granted. Couched in an appeal to the benevolence of groups that had the American Dream and ought to stop telling their neighbors that they couldn’t have the same.
We, DefaultAmericans, the white people, born here, to situations that look like whitebread America – encounter “All” as the ultimate expression of egalitarianism. It’s how the idea that everybody should have the same rights we enjoy gets framed when we first hear about it in schools. “The laws weren’t fair, and now they are. We fixed that,” we were taught.
SO it confuses us when racial outcomes aren’t the same. We think there must be some kind of moral reason, some cultural or social, or even genetic difference, that prevents these previously-excluded groups from ending up no different from their white counterparts. It confuses us when we hear people outside the White umbrella asking not just for the lifting of restrictions on their freedoms to associate and chase the dream, but also for solutions to the problems faced uniquely by the groups that lived so long outside prosperity that their field is still not even. It sounds to us, like they don’t want “All” after all. Like really, they want extra special treatment.
We were taught that it was wrong to Hate or Exclude or Punish anybody for the race they were born into.
But that’s where it stopped.
And the problem is, the way Desegregation was sold and taught to the nation’s white people was all framed in terms where “All” meant only talking about everyone all at once. No talking about race. No singling any one group out. Equality meant benign neglect, the freedom to go unencumbered by legal discrimination – that is, discrimination enshrined in law. Equality meant it wasn’t cool to exclude someone based on who they were. What it did not mean was anything pro-active. Equality just meant nobody got held back artificially, rather than taking a hard and solemn look at what it would take to create a nation where all races really had the same playing field.
But that’s not Equality. That’s the removal of one obstacle to it. Only one.
What we got was a laissez-faire Free-Market Equality, derived from unequal starting lines, so we can justify disparities in outcomes as disparities in work, effort, or talent. Lazy-Equality that didn’t just LET us, but almost forced us to explain disparities in outcomes as Disparities in Worth. We got just enough of an illusion of Equality that it almost guaranteed a rise in genuine racism. A racism that wasn’t alright to talk about, because people would look down on you if you mentioned that you noticed now that everything was “fair,” some groups of people didn’t rise. And so we also got resentment.
When you have an advantage, you notice it. But when the advantage you have, is simply lacking disadvantages that you can’t even see from where you are, a lack of permissible discrimination – a lack of – visible legal obstacles to prosperity, looks like all Fairness requires.
It goes like this:
Everybody is created Equal. So everybody starts at the same block, right? Make intentional sabotage illegal, and you get fairness, right? By default? You laugh, but that’s what so many of us were taught. And if you don’t look much closer (and why would anyone look closer at what looked like a solved-issue?) you get no further than that.
So when you hear white people resentfully correcting, “All Lives Matter,” what you’re hearing is reinforcement of the idea that keeps them from being racists. “You can’t single any one race out,” is how they learned not to be dicks. They see it as a breaking of the rules – as being RACIST – when they hear somebody say that Black lives matter. It’s specific. It’s a singling-out. That’s wrong. It’s ALL or nothing, or it’s racist, on the grounds that it acknowledges a race. I lay this out because I think that lots of times this goes without being understood. These people – people like me – were taught wrong: taught in low-resolution, by a generation this was all NEW to, who were just looking to stop violence and legal segregation, on the fly. They did their best. But what they gave us was a framework that encouraged race disparities feeling more justified. Furthermore, it gave us a framework of how to think about disparities in racial outcomes that let us off the hook to do anything about it. It’s “fair” now, right? So we don’t need to do anything more to make the problems faced by others go away. If they don’t thrive the way we do, then it’s on them… Or so the framework we were given, with its limits, leads smart people to believe.
The framework needs reworking. Not because the basic lesson that legally-enshrined discrimination is a problem, wasn’t true. But because we teach racism as “Solved,” when every other group but ‘white’ that’s living here still faces things that average white people don’t face. Academia has done a truly rotten job explaining how this all shakes out, talking in terms like Privilege, which while they’re technically true, require loads of education just to grasp the ways they work inside your life. An education that most people just won’t get. And so discussions about how to fix these problems end up making all the people whose ideas will need to change, just feel demonized, and picked-on, over racial grounds, instead.
Ludicrous claims by nazis like “white genocide” and “anti-white-bias” start to sound truly compelling, if you bump into ideas like privilege, without all the proper groundwork, or when fielded as a weapon rather than an educational outreach.
And so I’m starting just by taking apart “All.”
Because for me that was a lynchpin in the wall that for too long kept me from really understanding what was happening in the country. All = Tolerance. Specificity = Racism. Those were rules that we all learned, that just aren’t true.
The modern left (rightly) sees racist outcomes – outcomes that make being born a color that’s not white – as problems that we ought to solve, and not absolve ourselves from looking at on grounds that they require talking more now about race. They understand what people like me for entirely too long didn’t. That you don’t have to feel hatred for anybody, to perpetuate disparities in race, and that by saying things are “fair” because we ended segregation, we are working by default against the outcome of a truly Equal nation.
Equality is a destination. It’s not the means to reach one. Equality when treated as the only proper means to address racism leaves the people who start at a disadvantage out to dry. It says, “you’re in this on your own.” That what we have is ours because our ancestors built it for us (on your backs) and if you want it too, nothing (except our newly-embraced unwillingness to allow the race-based exploitation that built the prosperity we inherited) stops you from doing the same over the next few generations. You see the problem.
The way we approach “All” as the only way to get us all to “Equal,” means not even asking the question of how to get everyone on the same starting-line, let alone acknowledging other starting lines exist, and are our problem.
Now I don’t have an answer or a policy solution right at hand. That will take work.
But what I have is a reminder: We’re not there yet, and if you really care about America the Land of Opportunity – it’s not enough to stop at “don’t think about race.” We need to put our heads together honestly to climb out of the holes of history, and grow into the nation we could be if we lived up to our ideals with more than Very Pretty Words that let us justify the way things are, rather than make them right.

Out of Doors

Strap in. He’s talking again. He’s got his dander up, in that impassioned way that says we’re in for a long one. You’ve been warned.
I’ve never bought the whole “If they can stand there all day and panhandle, they could be working. Don’t feed the animals” rationale. As if having a job is Volitional rather than Situational.
“GET A JOB!” I hear idiots bark out car windows at panhandlers all the time. “Yeah, sure, let me just got to the job store where they hand those out!” *forehead slap* “Why didn’t I think of that…”
Lives are complicated. Homelessness is MORE complicated. Boiling it down to fit a “HardWork VS Laziness” narrative is just a way of feeling safe and insulated from the grim reality that everyone you know, including you yourself, could end up in that place without much warning, if the right cocktail of things went wrong at once.
But sure. Panhandlers make us feel guilty when we see them, wondering if they’re criminals, or drunks or people desperately in need, who we could help. Just seeing them reminds us how precarious life is, and so we write them off as bad people who deserve it, or as people who could walk out of that station if they only valued Work. Then we feel safe again. It can’t happen to us. We’re not like them. Don’t help them. They’re taking advantage, and they get what they deserve.
A nearby town just passed a law that made the only line of income homeless people have, to put a roof over their dependents heads when shelters are too crowded, into a criminal offense.
It’s awfully expensive to be poor. If your rent is 1,100 a month, the lowest you can find locally for a 1 bedroom unit in a building that’s not likely to burn down, you’re paying $36/night of safe shelter, and access to sanitary facilities with running water. It costs you $36/night to avoid homelessness. The moment you’re evicted, that cost-per-night for what you need to maintain everything from safety to basic hygene skyrockets to a local minimum of $65/night at local pay-by-day motels.
And so you buy a tent. The warmer months, you park it by the river and hope nobody spots it and evicts you. Dehydration puts you in the hospital a couple times, costing taxpayers more than your yearly rent used to be. The cost of treating poverty as a moral issue, and emergency care as a logistical one. Your daughter got a spider bite last June that got infected. Tents are fun when you’re a camper, but without access to proper sanitation, cuts and scrapes and bites can take a turn that makes them into serious concerns.
In the colder months, you try to find room in the shelters, but the available beds don’t come close to the demand, and so you either end up joining an uneasy alliance by the dump, on the railyard side, with other people so far in the margins of society you don’t know if the fire’s worth the chance that you’ll get hurt. You need to stay out of sight – that’s the important part – with so many municipalities passing laws against vagrancy and loitering and panhandling, and generally being poor while visible.
No access to a shower and the choice between a laundromat and food means you quickly start to look unemployable. It’s hard to hide the hazards to your teeth and weatherbeaten skin and hair that come of living outside without daily running water. Public bathrooms sometimes let you in, but none of them have showers. So you get yourself a gym membership, with hope of clinging on to the appearance of a person with a roof. A person who’s allowed to be in public.
Maybe you started hearing voices in your twenties, maybe you didn’t. Maybe the war never let go of you completely, and the V.A. couldn’t get you into therapy fast enough for you to keep your marriage and your job. You’re fine most days, but the strangest things can make you act out suddenly. Maybe you have a drug problem that started as a sports injury and a prescription written in the hope of getting you back to running marathons. Maybe it ran you somewhere else. Maybe you escaped human trafficking. Maybe your car died the week he hit you the first time, leaving you with no access to income, and the choice between ending up as one kind of statistic or another. Maybe your mortgage turned into foreclosure notices and then eviction, followed by your wife’s post-partum depression keeping her from returning to work, or maybe an interest-spiral built into that mortgage brought your payments out of step with your ability to pay. Maybe you lost everything, or maybe your position starting out was so precarious that this was just the likeliest outcome of a life the deck was always stacked against. Or maybe you just got sick and couldn’t work for long enough to lose your condo, and now getting back into the Sheltered world means saving up not just enough to buy a roof for you tonight, but somehow put away First Last and Security deposit – somewhere between two and three grand, and find a vehicle that you pray doesn’t die, so you can have an address and a way to get to any job that you apply for.
Most likely you get robbed before you save up near enough. Carrying around that kind of money isn’t safe, and banks won’t touch you if you don’t have an address.
But maybe just maybe your plan works out. You swallow shame and endure everything you used to think about homeless people yourself, being said, and often likely yelled your way, to find enough decent humans to save up what you need to climb back up. But only by the charity of strangers, because until you get that roof, every other source of income is illegal or unavailable to somebody who’s in your situation. Fill out a job application without an address, no references, and try to even get a job as a dishwasher or a fry cook. You’ll be unpleasantly surprised. Nobody trusts you when you’ve fallen off the world. They figure there must be a reason and of course you’re going to lie about what that reason is. Plus, how will they even notify you if you get the job? You have no phone number. Your public library email access might help, but that neighborhood is nicer and you stick out there. Cops roust you for just walking down the street in nicer places. All of this is just logistics to sort out. So you make plans. Most of them shaped by desperation and conditions that the “Get A Job!” crowd can not even fathom.
Then you hope that someone takes a chance on you and that you manage to hold everything together long enough that you can make it til some part of that car breaks. You start the long climb up the ladder back to safe participation in the lowest class of earners, and you only hope you don’t fall down again. The scariest part is, now you know that it can happen to you. It happened to you once. You look around at other people, folks who would’ve judged you in order to retain their sense of safety from that fate, and you map out in your head the ways that their life might end up the way yours did. You worry about them, too. It’s harder, living fully in the knowledge of how close most of us are.
Everybody wants to believe that it can’t happen to them.
Everybody wants to believe that people in a worse position deserve to be there.
Everybody wants to believe that if they DID by some accident of fate end up there, they’d be fine because the magical innate virtue of Hard Work is tattooed on their hearts, and having good values will save you… right? It will… I was so sure…
Our feelings about homelessness, and most of the hand-waving that we do, talking about it, come down to coping behavior we engage in so that we are sure we’re safe from things no one should have to live with.
I say all this, by way of condemnation of Holyoke’s recent decision. Yes. There are people who aren’t acting in good faith. There are people who will ask, but don’t deserve, to have your help. I’m not asking you to hand over your money. That’s on you and your own conscience. What I’m saying is, to criminalize the only viable path that leads from homelessness to safety – cutting people off from seeking out the help of willing strangers, on the grounds that not every one of them is worthy, consigns a whole lot of people to a shitty shitty fate, so that we get to feel just marginally better about punishing abusers of our trust.
For my part, the chance that someone MAY not be poor enough is a lousy reason not to offer help, if there’s also a chance they actually need it. Getting scammed of funds I’d otherwise be spending on a coffee or an xbox game is hardly the equivalent in moral weight of walking by a desperately poor person and looking the other way. Some things – things like helping save lives, or even helping sustain lives long enough to save themselves – are worth a little risk. But that’s me. You don’t even need to go that far. All I’m asking you, and everybody else, is not to cut off people’s legal right to ask me for my help.
That costs you nothing but the chance of feeling guilty over being too conflicted or mistrustful – or just too broke that day – to help when you see someone with a sign. A little guilt vs someone’s chance to set their lives right… I’m not asking you to vote or write or show up at a meeting.
Just don’t make life for the homeless any harder.
Will you do that much for me?