For over three years I lived in the ghetto, right across the street from Bee’s Mansion, a magnificently crumbling crack house. I moved there on purpose as a missionary to work with disadvantaged kids. I could not have been less qualified, I thought. I was white, a Yankee and raised on a farm. I didn’t even speak “southern” never mind “hood.”
All I had going for me was that I cared about the human beings who lived there, whom I respected as fully functioning human beings- plus a huge dose of humility in regard to my abilities. As it turns out, these were excellent qualifications-far exceeding a PhD in sociology, for example.
The fact is that decent human beings, after a trial sizing-up period, come to love one another. Sure, they laughed at my ignorance of everything southern and black, and I joined in. I was ignorant and the truth is often funny.
Here’s an example. Working on an art project with a group of middle school girls, I was confused by their designation of certain kids as black, light-skinned, or red. “Wait-are you saying people around here are different colors?” I asked. They stared at me for a few moments and burst out laughing. “Now Miss Je’, you can’t be that stupid.” Yes, I could be that stupid, but they patiently straightened me out.
From the white suburban perspective, gangs were a terrifying idea; the word “gangs” hits the fear center, kind of like “terrorist” does today. The neighborhood had several gangs: The Voltron Posse, the New York Boys, and several groups that took Greek letters for their gang names: like Kappa Gamma Rho. The sheriff, who knew he was lying, told the newspaper that our town did not have any gangs.
When I met Jerry, the leader of Kappa Gamma Rho, I thought it was a college fraternity. After some confusing conversation back and forth, I realized Jerry did not know about college fraternity naming practices and that it was in fact, a gang. Jerry was one of the most intelligent young men I ever met. He was slight of build, quick of mind and a very good communicator; a natural leader.
Other gang leaders I have known were also naturals. What I came to see after awhile was that gangs are natural. We humans lived in tribes for a couple hundred thousand years, grouping together for cooperation and mutual protection. We associate still. We join churches, lodges, professional associations and political parties. It is natural. It works. It kept our ancestors alive for millenia, even through 20,000 years of Ice Age.
Listen, if our ancestors did not associate for cooperation and mutual protection for many millenia, your DNA would have dead-ended in saber-toothed tiger dung long ago and you would not be reading this.
Furthermore, our ancestor-tribes looked around for resources to stay alive. You can only use the resources you have, you cannot use the resources you do not have. Staying alive is, obviously, the priority. After awhile I saw that the kids were doing exactly that, asking themselves, “What resources do we have to stay alive?”
As a middle class white person, my tribe had access to many more resources to stay alive than the kids in the hood. My tribe did not have to commit ‘crimes” to stay alive, yet many of my tribe did commit crimes-they called them white-collar crimes and an expensive lawyer could guarantee that a white collar criminal could bypass the bad consequences of their bad choices.
Johan Galtung, an amazing man and the founder of the discipline of Peace studies, talks about overt and structural violence. We all know what overt violence is. Structural violence is violence where some social structure harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized classism, racism and ethnocentrism are examples.
As a middle class white person, my tribe had access to many more resources to stay alive (and get ahead) than the kids in the hood. Why? Because of institutionalized racism, that’s why, because of structural violence built in to the system. You can only use the resources you have, you cannot use the resources you do not have. Violence begets violence, no justice, no peace.
I often looked around at my beloved kids, kids just like any kids. Some clever, some artistic, some bright, some goofy, some hot-headed, some quiet and gentle. Just kids like any other kids. I looked at them and felt sad that their potential was unlikely to be realized under current conditions.
All men are not literally created equal, of course-and that’s not what Jefferson said. He said they were created equal in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A massive top-down “equality” or leveling of entire populations is neither desirable nor even possible.
But dammit, I insist that every kid-EVERY KID-have equal opportunity; have the same resources, the same chance to make their way. What they choose to do with that opportunity is their business, but don’t try to tell me all our kids have equal opportunity now. NOW we have structural violence and that has to change.