Monday, April 10, 2017

Never got to the jelly

The other 'hood
I ended up reading a book last night on the recommendation of Five Boys' Mom: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  It's a memoir of sorts of a poor mountain kid who graduated from Yale Law via the USMC. Good read, quick read, and a very enlightening read.

What I found more interesting than the author's very interesting life* were the similarities between Appalachian white poverty and inner city black poverty.

There are some pretty obvious parallels: broken families, drug abuse, interpersonal violence, poor diet and hygiene, and the instinct to hide problems from strangers/outsiders. Two that I found to be the most intriguing and tragic were the scoffing at intellectual accomplishment and a belief that one's actions don't really matter.

The first is hidden within 'public' rhetoric about the value of education.  While everyone says that education is important, when black kids are calling out other blacks for "acting white" when they work hard, and when whites are calling other whites "faggot" for doing well in school, public rhetoric matters very little.

One interesting personal story related to that: Last Friday we got a talk from our university diversity officer**, who told us of a meeting she recently had with one of "her kids".  The soon-to-be grad was a black girl from one of Kansas' more prosperous counties, graduating cum laude, and with a bright future ahead of her.  Our officer asked her if she would be willing to go to lunch with the officer and a couple other black students as something of a mentoring opportunity. The girl refused, first quietly and finally quite adamantly. It took a few questions to get to the real issue.

"I don't like black people," the student finally said.  The officer was taken aback. The officer's black, the student's black, her parents are black, what's this rubbish about not liking black people?

It turns out that while her family was comfortably middle class, she grew up on the edge of a poorer area and attended inner city schools.  For years she suffered the insults and fists of her black classmates because she studied hard and spoke standard English.

While she was in middle school her family moved to a richer, whiter area where she excelled both academically and socially, but she neither forgot nor forgave those she left behind. Like JD, she managed to escape a really bad situation and make something of herself. Also like JD, those she left behind likely never will. And they will teach that learned helplessness to their children.

Which leads into the second problem: these people - poor whites and poor blacks alike - believe that what they do doesn't matter.  They lack what we might call 'agency,' that feeling that they can control (and are therefore responsible for) much of their current and future position. Instead, they revel in their mostly imaginary oppression and feel put upon when called to do something about their lot in life***. Nothing is their fault - not their life, not their drug abuse, not the wounds they are passing down like an heirloom set of china to their own children.

The poor in this culture are not honest with themselves about themselves.  They report going to church and work far more and doing drugs far less than they actually do. They look down on 'welfare queens' while trading their own food stamps for cash or smokes.  They have hidden away self-reflection because it's too painful to bear.

And if you're not honest with yourself about yourself, and if you don't believe that you can do anything about your situation, and if you insist that those people expecting you to get your shit together are "blaming the victim," then you are going to be painfully poor until you die at 55 of congestive heart failure while watching Rachel Ray in HD and eating Fritos dipped in ketchup.

The underlying problem is not that the poor have no money; they have plenty of money for smokes and sneakers and pot and iPhones and rims. It's not that they don't have dental care, but that they put Pepsi in their babies' bottles. The poverty problem in America is primarily cultural: the poor are poor in the midst of plenty because for whatever reasons, because of whatever fears, they avoid the kinds of actions that might bring them out and revel in the kinds of actions that press them down.

The tragedy is that there is almost nothing that anyone but the poor themselves can do about that.

* If you can call living to 31 a life.  The kid was born the year I graduated high school, for crying out loud.
** It wasn't a bad talk at all. Diversity in rural Kansas is not like diversity at Oberlin. Here it's about giving those who grew up 'out' a way 'in'.
*** from "casting lots," it's a euphemism that teaches that what happens to you is random and totally not based on your own decisions and actions.  And if life is just a throw of the dice, why try hard?


  1. OT: Is there anything to the supposed GOP anxiety over the House special election, or just MSM trying to gin up a horse race?

  2. I read about the alleged horse race in the LA Times, not any local paper, so it's probably just them hoping out loud.

    The result will probably have less to do with Trump's alleged unpopularity (he only won Sedgwick County by 18 points, whereas he won mine by more than 50) than with the fact that the GOP candidate is the state treasurer and the Dem is no one anyone has heard of.

    I would be very surprised if the result was closer than 10 points and wholly unsurprised if it was more than 20.

    1. Final tally: Estes by 8. So I guess I'm surprised. I would have been far more surprised -- shocked even -- had what's his name pulled out a win.

    2. Are you sure anyone in the state has heard of Estes?

    3. It's hard to tell.

      In 2014 Estes received more votes (557k) than any other statewide candidate, including Pat Roberts. Only the ballot measure to allow charitable raffles won more bigly.

      Still, you know how a "generic Republican" always polls better than a named one? That dynamic might be in play here as well...

  3. I've always been curious about what would happen if social service offices were closed, to a shop. No foodstamps, no housing, nothing, all gone. Currently there would be a revolt. If the government had the stomach for it, an easily crushed one. There would still be food stores, unless those were closed by law and force too. I think, for a while, it would get worse. Then, after a generation or two of nothing but nothing, it would begin to change. Thing is, I don't think they want it to change. I honestly am thinking they want more people on the government dole as a replacement for wanting fewer workers, definitely fewer high paid workers.

    Small towns in Colorado and Iowa, while not as bad as inner city or Appalachian communities, had some problems with poverty and what goes with it as well. Certain people had a way of corralling wealth and keeping it. Everything was scaled down, though... from the difference between rich and poor to the amount of force commonly used to maintain order. The thing is, everyone knew who worked, who drank, who drugged, etc, there was no place to escape into delusions. Most people seemed to find their place, preferred place. Those who couldn't either moved on or created a stink until they won or lost.

  4. Thing is, I don't think they want it to change

    Agreed. Though in addition to the reason you state I would add two others:

    1) there are people who make their living 'serving' the poor, by which I mean working in DC offices where the paperwork they shuffle allegedly helps the poor somehow. If there were no more poor, those people would need to find real jobs lest they become poor. Organizing and warehousing the poor is big business.

    2) There are people who are emotive, sentimental, and simplistic. For these people, "If a man shall not work, neither shall he eat" is unfathomable. So they will use any method they can to avoid any pressure on the poor that might cause them to change. These are the kinds of Great Society warriors who fought Clinton's welfare reform, then gave themselves a halo for acting in a way that incentivized poverty. Having lots poor people means you can always feel good about yourself for 'helping' them. Even if you're helping them stay poor.