|The other 'hood|
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?