A couple of months ago I found myself unemployed and alone in a city in which I knew like 10 people (out of a million of so). it was stressful and I was dealing with some depression; but otherwise I was handling my business. Until. My roommate announced he was moving out. It was the last straw: the one that broke my back. I sat alone in my room almost in tears. I was panicked, alone, and scared. Here I was alone in a city of millions, with no job, and on the hook for a $1600 a month apartment (plus $40 a month for internet [a necessity for finding work in 2015], $30 a month for power, $30 a month for gas, and the assorted expenses of keeping yourself alive and looking for work [i.e. paper for resumes, etc.]). There was no way this was going to work out. I need a job, a cheaper apartment, people to help me move… On and on the thoughts flittered through my psyche. Along with questions about why the person I phone interviewed with had no called back when they said they would; why the drug test that one place wanted was taking so long to come back (had a misplaced sesame seed ruined that job prospect); and on and on.
So I did what must would do. I called my parents and in breathless terror and near tears relayed my fears. Not my realest fears: that I was a failure, an idiot, a disappointment, a 40 year old son who not only had failed to provide grandchildren, but was jobless and about to be homeless. As my desperation deepened, my mom calmly said, “Don’t worry. We got this. You will be OK. Your dad is retired but has some extra money. Don’t worry. We will work this out.”
Then she said something that rocked my world. Something that keeps coming to mind as I watch the events in Baltimore unfold. She said, “Just be glad you have a family that has your back.” My mom. My dad. My sister. My brother-in-law. heck even my toddler niece and nephew. They have my back. They will do whatever to help. My dad pitched in money. My mom, sister, and bro-in-law helped me pack into a new apartment. They stood behind me. They pushed me through to the other side.
That is what it means to be a white kid from the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala. It means that help is right there. In my family. In my church. In my community. In my alumni society. What a joy and privilege it is, to be young and white and in the suburbs.
“The Baltimore Sun recently described Sandtown as ‘a neighborhood where generations of crushing poverty and the war on drugs combine to rob countless young people like [Freddie Gray] of meaningful opportunities.’ The neighborhood, where there are only 84 men for every 100 women, is a case study in the phenomenon of ‘missing black men‘ recently outlined in the New York Times: places where black men between the ages of 25 and 54 have seemingly vanished, mostly due to incarceration or homicide.
Sandtown currently has more residents in jail than any other neighborhood in Baltimore, according to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative. As those men have been taken away or killed — or both, in Freddie Gray’s case — they’ve left empty houses to be boarded up and empty shoes that may never be filled.”
This is what it means to be black in the urban community. Imagine my scenario if instead of being white and from Hoover, Ala., I was black and from inner-city Birmingham. Chances are I do not have a father (at least one that can be easily called on the phone during the middle of the day). And if I did, chances are he would not be retired with the time to help. He would be working multiple jobs and still not have enough to pay his bills for the month; much less help with mine. I probably wouldn’t have a car (at least one trusty enough to make it to work regularly). Without that there would be no way to make it out to the suburbs to find employment. And if I did, Marquis would have a harder time finding work than Matt ever would (don’t believe me, read Freakonomics excellent study on how names influence hireablity). Just the fact that I had been able to move out of my hometown and take an unpaid internship in order to go after a career that I wanted, is something that black Matt from Ensley would never be able to do.
Two weeks ago I attended a graduation ceremony for a charity with which my parents volunteer. They help poor youth find jobs. The stories were enlightening. One man had managed to land a job (as a mover); but at the end of the interview his new employer avoided shaking his hand. When my parents asked about the absence of a loved one at the graduation, the reply came back that said person had lost power at her home and was also having to watch her sister’s kids (in that powerless home). But it was OK because a neighbor with power was letting the kids shower at their place before school. Listening to this story, I thought, “Toto I don’t think we’re in Hoover any more.”
This is what it means. A scholarly article I found online summarizes a point I have been trying to make here and on Social Media. One cannot talk about what is happening in Baltimore without having taken the time to understand Baltimore and the writing of David Simon (a man who has been a cop, teacher, and reporter in Baltimore) has done that for many of us stuck in the suburbs with our fancy HBO subscriptions. His writing on such miniseries as The Corner and TV shows such as The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Streets takes its viewers into the complicated worlds of Baltimore. In the lives of Avon Barksdale, Bubbles, Prez, and Bodie, it reveals the true price that living in the areas of Baltimore metes out.
Sociologists have coined a phrase “Black Hole” to define this urban jungles as places where poverty is so severe it sucks the life out of anything that comes to close to its orbit. For every Micheal Oher or Ben Carson, there are millions that live and die within a three block radius (with the exceptions of those locked away in cages across town). It seems that contrary to America fiction, the bootstrapper is the exception that proves the rule (not the rule). In fact the show The Wire may even provide us with a prominent example of this rule in the character of Snoop (who appears in seasons 3 to 5). This female gangbanger is a doomed entity on the show and it appears in real life as well. Despite the publication of a book about getting out of poverty (timed for release during the show’s run), the actress playing Snoop has a not-so-weird coda. Unable to find work post-show, she eventually went to jail during the bust of a drug ring. The black hole had claimed another victim.
And even then one must reply that what sets Oher and Carson apart is the appearance of people who helped them find their way out. These men worked hard, yes; but they also found people who came alongside them and helped them out. Something that many if not most of the men and women in the inner-city do not have. And if the story of Snoop (aka Felicia Pearson) has a moral it is found in the words of my Counseling teacher at Samford: “We all have a family of origin which presents to us as normal and must of us will return again and again to this version of life we understand as normal.” Our families and our environments have a magnetic effect on us: pulling us in again and again. That is why so many alcoholic fathers beget alcoholic kids. Why so many abusive parents raise abusive kids. That is why I oft repeat the mantra of Archbishop Tutu:
“Yesterday’s victim is today’s oppressor. Today’s oppressor is tomorrow’s victim.“
That is why I hung up the phone with my parents and cried remembering the prayer of the Pharisee pointed out by Jesus:
“Lord, God thank you for not making me like this man beside me.”
I know we are supposed to condemn the words of this Pharisee; but for once this prayer rang true. I am glad that God made me to be a white man from the suburbs. No doubt about it. It is an untold blessing and privilege that I did nothing to earn; but am thankful for each day. I mean it not as a slam (as that Pharisee and many respondents on Facebook and Twitter have); but as a truth about God and how He has touched my life.
Yet, despite (and even because of) my good fortune, the cyclic nature of our lives and the structural inequalities inherent in our economic structure work hand-in-hand to doom many of those found in our inner cities. These did not ask to be born into poverty and oppression. They had no choice (much as I did). Yet here they are. Alone. Frightened. Angry. Frustrated. Much more unhinged by the obstacles of life than I ever have been. Knowing this, I wonder about what would happen if the roles were reversed. I kind of have to confess. I can see myself storming that CVS in rage and anger: taking my vengence on the corporate factions that pay for the Police who have stuck me in a park and rushed me with shields and batons. Taking my anger out at the comforts of the few while my life is stuck in this stupid park with angry cops knowing that whatever happens the blowhards on Fox News and Facebook are going to somehow blame this on me. Knowing that I am about to be told, yet again, that if I would just make better choices, I would not be here (commuting home from school).
This, of course, does not excuse the actions- they would still be wrong. Yet it does leave me, Matt, the white Suburban, with a challenge. Am I going to turn away, shake my head, and mouth platitudes about making better choices; or am I willing to walk out the front door of my new apartment, and into the street, and offer a hand to those in danger. Will I place myself between the ‘thug’ and the ‘authority?’ Will I follow the example of my parents and start helping out others? Will I look some one in the face and say, “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.” Or will I immerse myself in all things Marvel; because, hey, Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out Friday and I have tickets, and Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, and I already have directions to that event plugged into my GPS. And besides, “Thank God, I am not that guy…”