In the days leading up to the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I've been having an interesting e-mail exchange with a good friend on the subjects of race, class, poverty, and bigotry. Our conversation began with an e-mail from my friend describing a discussion about race after church one Sunday. Below is an excerpt.
I had spoken at this discussion a little about how as a child in South Carolina I'd lived below the poverty line, and I've heard people call my family white trash. My point was that we should distinguish between racism and poverty and seek to understand the complex ways in which they do and don't interact rather than assuming that poverty is a problem perfectly correlated with race.
...I'm convinced that skin color and household income are much less important to one's quality of life than the values with which one is raised and according to which one chooses to live. My parents taught me that if I worked hard in school I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, and taught me the importance of being financially independent. They also taught me right from wrong, and to be curious about the world, and to be involved in my community...There are plenty of examples of people who overcome adversities of race, poverty, loss of a parent during childhood, etc, and become successful, and plenty of examples of people who have every advantage you can think of but become self-indulgent, unhappy, unproductive citizens. Race and poverty may correlate imperfectly with raising children and living by good values, but I'm hopeful that values are something that can be taught more directly than race-blindness or class-(un?)consciousness.
My friend's reflections prompted me bring a bit of focus to my own thoughts on race and class, enormous and elusive issues that they are. Below is my reply.
The place where race, class, culture, economics, personal responsibility, and public policy intersect is thorny, rife with pitfalls, and full of forks in the road. Too often in our conversations about these issues, particularly the ones that take place in political and media discourse, we witness the temptation to generalize and oversimplify this complex set of issues. An orthodox materialist might argue that everything is reducible to dollars and cents, and that once we reduce class disparities – through jobs programs, for example, or employee-owned companies, or community-based economic opportunities – we'll also reduce the harmful effects of racism and other forms of bigotry. Someone who is orthodox about race and ethnicity, on the other hand, might say that racism is the root of our social ills, and that only by addressing the legacy of slavery and the reality of racial bias can we hope to achieve economic equity and erase class distinctions. A person who is orthodox about gender issues would probably point to misogyny, patriarchy, and/or homophobia
as the source of inequities and injustice in other areas.
When I think about these issues and how they relate to each other, I usually think of a Venn diagram – or a soup. In a Venn diagram, you have areas within each sphere that can be viewed and analyzed on their own merits: race as race, economics as economics, and so on. But there is a significant portion of the diagram where the circles overlap, and within that section one can't talk about race as separate from class, or personal responsibility as independent of public policy and institutionalized bigotry. I like the soup metaphor because…well, mostly because I like soup. It goes like this: when you taste a creamy vegetable soup – a potage, if you will – you might be able to discern the flavor of sage, and to distinguish it clearly from the taste of thyme and the taste of onions. But if all of those things have been whirled together, it is pretty much impossible to delve into the bowl, separate the sage from the thyme, and lay them on the table side by side, where each can be observed independently of the other. Each ingredient is distinct, but blended and interrelated with all the
others in such a way that it doesn't make a lot of sense to identify one and claim that it's the whole soup.
Personal responsibility, lifestyle choices, and upbringing are extremely important, as you point out. Your own experience shows the ways in which a positive family environment and mature decision-making about things like education and finances can help a person permeate class barriers. In my career I've worked for, advocated on behalf of, and funded some really high quality programs that seek to redress class and race inequities through employment assistance, adult education, substance abuse treatment, financial literacy training, etc. But the best social program in the world can't do a thing for someone who will not make the tough choice to make a change. You've got to climb the ladder yourself, and the best that any human service initiative can do is give you a hand over the edge once you've reached that last rung. So while some of my more liberal friends might be uncomfortable with the "bootstraps" way of thinking, there's no denying that personal responsibility plays a huge role in overcoming the pernicious effects of bigotry.
While lifestyle choices and upbringing are important, it's also important to acknowledge that racism and poverty are pervasive, institutionalized, and generational. If my parents were born into poverty and deprivation, and their parents were born into poverty and deprivation, the odds of my acquiring the resources needed to become financially independent are slimmer than they are for someone whose parents took him to open his first checking account at age 12 and who received a great deal of advice on sound money management. This is not to say that being born into poverty and deprivation is determinative, by any means. But it does play a significant role in someone's ability to succeed financially and otherwise combat the systemic problems of institutionalized racism and class bias. If cabs stop for me and not for you, if a landlord rents to me and not to you, if Allison gets the job but Ayonnah doesn't*, and if the only meaningful variable in those scenarios is skin color or the perception of racial differences, then individual lifestyle choices alone are going to have a harder time breaking down those barriers.
The systemic and generational nature of racism and poverty has an impact on the sorts of lifestyle choices people make, the ways in which they raise their children, and the varying degrees of opportunity available to people who make healthy choices. Take someone who lives in a poor rural or urban community who wishes to eat healthier. If the only grocery options in the area are corner stores, convenience stores, fast food joints, or discount markets, then she doesn't have many opportunities to purchase nutritious food. And even if there is a nearby farmers' market or mainstream supermarket, she may never have been taught how to cook more nutritious foods. Personal choice is a key factor, but it is far from the only one. In the same way, if someone loves to read, but doesn't have that passion reinforced by parents or teachers and has never been taught how to use the local library, his potential in that area may not be realized. And in most cases that I'm aware of, a lack of investment in nutrition, public health, community development, and education has a strong correlation to race and socioeconomic status.
You asked "what sorts of community programs do work best to instill healthy values." That's a difficult question, since most social programs don't address the issue of values or behavior, but rather access to services and products. There are a lot of evidence-based interventions that have been demonstrated to have positive impacts on the community, but which don't get to the causes that underlie the problems they seek to ameliorate.
A number of promising examples exist, however. Some types of fatherhood and community-based marriage promotion programs seem to work (see the National Practitioners' Network for Fathers and Families for more info) in keeping families together and instilling positive parenting behaviors, although they too tend to be regarded with squeamishness by many social liberals who view such initiatives as advancing a conservative social agenda.
There's also a growing movement to combat childhood obesity and promote nutrition, especially in impoverished urban and rural communities. Some programs that I'm familiar with combine access to nutritious foodstuffs with education about healthy eating habits, in addition to policy reform efforts to keep sodas out of school vending machines, etc. See the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation website for more info.
Something for which I've developed staunch support fairly recently is the effort to promote sound financial practices among low-income consumers. My interest in this field, which is variously called "asset building," "family economic success," and "financial education," grew out of my experience in workforce development, when I realized that a person could get a job, show up every day, and do good work for the rest of his life, but never escape poverty. Financial prosperity depends on a whole lot more than earned income alone. It also involves knowledge about how to manage one's money, education about financial products and opportunities, and protections from the types of predatory practices that unscrupulous financial services providers employ to take advantage of lower-income clients. Through proper budgeting, homeownership and retirement counseling, access to low-interest loans, debt reduction, credit repair, consumer protections, etc., families can be better able to keep and grow the income they earn. More information on this is available from the National Endowment for Financial Education.
There are many examples that touch on many other spheres of life, of course. These are just the ones that came to mind first. It should be noted that the key element in the success in all of these types of efforts is individual behavior change. The old saying goes, "give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." I actually don't agree with those premises. I would change that to: give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish, and he'll know how to fish; actually watch him pull out fish on his own, and only then you can be fairly confident that he'll eat for a lifetime." In other words, tools and the knowledge to use them aren't enough. In order to actually effect change, a person has to put those tools and knowledge to use. I mean, I know all about the health risks of smoking and have the ability to change, but I continue to do it. Until I make that behavioral change, all the information and resources in the world can't help me.
One of the attractive things about behavior-based models is that they actually give people the means to make positive changes that can combat the effects of institutionalized racism and discrimination. In the asset development model, for instance, lower-income people are actually learning how to make capitalism work for them in some of the same ways that it works for more affluent people. If you can't destroy the machine, you can at least get a little control of it. I'm also a fan of slightly more radical methods, such as creating parallel economic structures that permit historically marginalized populations to gain control over the means of acquiring and disseminating wealth. Stimulating the growth of viable minority-owned businesses is one way to achieve this, as is the formation of mutual assistance associations among immigrant and ethnic groups.
I honestly don't know what can be reasonably or substantively done to attack the root causes of racism, classism, and other forms of bigotry. But to combat the ill consequences of systemic discrimination, I believe what is required is a combination of better public policy, better social programs, and the sort of outreach and mobilizing efforts that encourage people to organize and learn to the wield the tools of power for themselves.
*See the report "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination" by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2004.