It Be Like That…but It Doesn’t Have To Be

I woke up this morning and read George Chidi’s piece “Why They’re All Black”. If you aren’t reading George’s writing, you are truly missing out. The piece was a dissection of crime, race, and poverty data. He ended his piece with a well placed question facing Atlanta now: 

Racists presume everyone is as bad at math as they are. That’s the part that gets to me. It’s not enough to be stupid; stupidity must be imposed on others. When we’re talking about violent crime, we are talking about tiny numbers of people in absolute terms.

Among white people, perhaps one in 600 people will be arrested in a year for committing a violent crime. Perhaps one in 240 Black people will be arrested.

The idea that either of these numbers has one thing to say about the morality or character of the 99+ percent of either group that are law-abiding is exactly how racism works — attributing the negative characteristics of a small subset of a population to the whole.

The question to ask is why Atlanta’s concentrated poverty — like most concentrated poverty — is so racially defined. Why are Black people so much more likely to be poor?

I’d personally go further: why does this persist when we have the ability to change it?

Could it be that we don’t want to? We enjoy this division that causes little sacrifice of thought and tax revenue? It’s far easier to cast moral judgment to explain away the efforts we would have to make to close the gaps in our system.

When you talk about class, you often get race for free. Maybe that’s why MLK Jr. didn’t stop with his “I Have a Dream” speech and persisted in the Poor People’s campaign. Because when you close those gaps, you have the opportunity to narrow racism more than any bell on top of Stone Mtn or shared MLK Jr. quote you’ll see today.

I’ve personally focused a lot of writing and questioning of legislators over the years on economic development. I come from a very rural place, albeit only an hour outside of Atlanta. The ability to earn often determines one’s destiny in America. But in this pandemic, in my city, the American myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps seems like an ephemeral sense of nostalgia from the ‘60s that had defined 9-5s, no work cell phones, nor remote work that keeps on attached to the workplace at any hour. The effects on mental health on the inability to gather for fun, worship, and work is one of which we’re only beginning to scratch the surface. The fallibility of our leaders has been on a ghastly mirror-like display to the electorate since November 2015.  

For me, the intersection of the information George shared comes to stark reality in my neighborhood. Mozley Park is the place where the intersectionality of class, race, crime, and mental health come together, exacerbating stress and trauma. I feel like the Georgia General Assembly is alllllllmost there. We’ve got a lot of buzz words flying around the good ‘ol boys club because they seem to finally recognize this isn’t something you can tighten your belt around nor “aw shucks” your way out of. Bless their hearts. The professionals ‘round them trying to convince them to invest in public health over the years are finally beginning to be heard! Praise the Lord!

We (as a state) just don’t adequately provide resources to resolve these issues. And when we have a chance to, we give tax refunds as a means of staying in office. The cheap tricks American politicians play to win votes is so similar to actual bribery I wonder if we will shortly begin to be compared to developing nations or banana republics.. 

Even the very systems to address the challenges of mental health and poverty are built into already over-taxed systems like education as a service delivery mechanism. 

I served within the Junior League of Atlanta, Inc. for six years. One of the policy areas we advocated around is one the First Lady of Georgia picked up as her issue of choice: human trafficking. In the time I volunteered (and then belatedly served a client) addressing human trafficking efforts were largely focused on schools. High schools were an area of focus, but my client, youthSpark, tried to build consensus among several nonprofits focused on the college level in the metro Atlanta area. The pushback colleges and school personnel had wasn’t’ because they didn’t agree this was happening nor did they not care. They simply pointed out that another unfunded mandate was really just a means of turning education into childcare because we neither bi-focally address the challenges parents have nor do we adequately support the actual mission educators are supposed to be serving. 

Ever wonder why Georgia has such a horrible teacher retention rate? You can thank over burdening teachers with regulation and little actual funding support to address the problems that start in the home. I have been told repeatedly by people who genuinely care about education that reforming the QBE funding formula requires too much political capital. Thus, charter schools were inserted as a band-aid measure for the weak will of our political leaders.

This is the answer we get when we ask our leaders to do something: it’s too hard.

So what are the other means of addressing this if nonprofits and schools can’t do it? 

There’s always Jesus, you say.

In the Bible Belt we like to think that churches can do a lot of this work, and if you haven’t been to church in a while you might still believe that. This isn’t to second guess the Trinity, but that unfortunate fallible nature of humankind. The truth (as a person who’s served as a deacon, finance committee chair, and still considers herself “washed in the blood” as they say) is that we don’t actually have the capacity to do that. The fact that actual church work (not just the decision making) is also largely done by women and gay men, means that straight men are still sitting at the pinnacle of the food chain, even when they claim to be doing the necessary work. But that’s a sermon for another day…

My church, The Church at Ponce & Highland, is a partner in a larger group called Intown Collaborative Ministries. This group, and the churches that are a part of it, provide a caseworker, warming centers in the cold, a food pantry, and a mish-mash of benevolent funds to assist in the pinches the unhoused often find themselves. Our church is financially sound, as are many in the city of Atlanta. 

To believe any one of these churches (or groups of them) is financially strong enough to address the largest income inequality gap in our nation is a level of disillusion of our legislators that I cannot personally indulge. 

And if you question my faith, I will remind you that Jesus sat with the sex workers and questioned the elders of the church. Turning over tables of money changers in the Temple was also part of His practice, but you won’t find that in a glossy Joel Osteen sermon- you’re going to have to read your Bible for that. Try Jesus, not me.

The reality is, poverty is trauma and mental illness doesn’t care which God you pray to, how much power you have nor how much money you make. In tragic recent news we learned that Jeff Parker, the esteemed CEO of MARTA, took his own life. And on cue, everyone expressed their shock and condolences. Pardon, but did you think his work stress wasn’t taking a toll? Does the legislature not remember the heart attack Chairman Jay Roberts had while he was navigating the gas tax??

Parker made $366,575 per annum. Arguably enough to address whatever mental health challenges he may have been experiencing. God rest his soul and may he be a reminder to all the folks who think they aren’t “weak” and can “handle” it on their own. That’s a lie I hope everyone rejects. 

The fact is, there are many who do not have the resources and who are striving to get the help they need. When you’re not making enough money, ironically, therapy is seen as a luxury. Culturally, it’s also seen as a “white people” problem. This is another insidious lie perpetuated by a society that asks us all to wring ourselves out on the altar of work and obligations to societal norms into which we never fully bought. Ask any member of a marginalized community. I ain’t here for that.

For folks who don’t have to worry about stable paychecks, these are manageable problems that can be explained away as laziness, poor moral character, lack of planning, and idleness. To counteract this level of naivety, I’ve personally tried to invite as many folks into my home to demonstrate what I find in my neighborhood, yet few take me up on this. 

It’s as if they’re perfectly aware of the glaring difference between their cushy lives and want to turn away. 

If you’re thinking it’s my hospitality, my husband is a great cook and we keep a well stocked bar, including individual favorites of some of the Capitol crowd.

Lately, I’ve come to find there are many church plants that occur in gentrifying areas to fill the gaps poverty leaves in between the old neighbors and new. It’s for people like me, the “nice white people”, who move into previously red-lined areas and report back what we find. In our white savior naivety, we think that this is a small scale, neighborhood challenge, instead of a nationwide system that perpetuates haves and have nots. We feel some sense of atonement with trash pick ups, Little Free Libraries, and crusader-like tactics to “help”, while the neighbors who’ve been here since the sixties shake their heads at our foolishness, waiting for us to burn ourselves out. And even though I’m white, this approach isn’t unique to my race. I find it’s more associated with my class.

The other part of this story is one that Atlanta REALLY doesn’t like to discuss… 

Our individual decisions as part of these systems have longer term impacts, even though our own role may (in our minds) be small. 

Some months ago, a neighbor (IMHO) conflated a number of events and drew the conclusion that a particular kid was to blame for a window in this neighbor’s home being broken. I know this kid and the utter ridiculousness of the idea. But, the neighbor couldn’t be convinced, so I gave the kid’s mom a heads up that the law may be called. This mother and child (children, really, as there are multiple siblings) lived in the neighborhood longer than the neighbor who was inclined to call the law, and certainly longer than I have. I learned recently from others that the kid has gone to live elsewhere with the kid’s father. This was all over something that in my hometown area could have been cleared up by talking to the mama and a corresponding amount of manual labor rendered by the kid. 

To me, this shows how individuals impact our system of justice and have longer term effects on one another’s lives. It may also be surprising to some that I was the only white person in this mess- pulled in only as a fluke, more than likely.

We hope that adults will make wise decisions, and we often correlate wisdom with degrees and or years of experience. Yet I can honestly say that the adults in my life as a kid didn’t always do that, namely because of the traumas they’d encountered themselves. So now this kid’s life is on a different trajectory – we will see over the years if this is a positive or negative turn. Either way, it’s not clear that the child got any say so in the decision. 

It be like that, as they say.

But it doesn’t have to be. 

In fact, I have this nagging optimism that Atlanta and thereby Georgia can be different. We could be a leader in education, addressing mental health, and closing the income inequality gap, if we just have that comin’ to Jesus we’re always threatening. We’re going to have to give up the cheap political tricks though. To me, the buzz words and dumbing down policy into digestible campaign slogans really insults Southern intelligence and ingenuity. I find that the dynamic nature of our state can handle far more. Our responsibility to the community calls us to dig deep into our problem solving abilities and lay our cards on the table. We have the money. We have the brain power. We have more resources at our finger tips than we’ve ever had before in our history. They are our decisions to make. Now I need the personal responsibility and accountability conservatives like to tout to drive us to question how we’ve always done things. We each get to choose the part we play in our city, in our state, in our systems. I hope we choose not to look away. I hope we choose to have the hard conversations. I hope we choose to offer empathy rather than excuses. I hope those holding elected offices also do that, as we embark on a new city council, new legislative session, and new Mayoral administration. 

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