The moment we cease to hold each other, The moment we break faith with one another, The sea engulfs us and the light goes out. -- James Baldwin
My town is on fire. Spreading now to Washington D.C., New York City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia. No wonder. This is not just a Baltimore problem. This is a USA problem. This is a worldwide problem.
Long ago, I worked in those inflamed communities. I worked there for a year, 1966-67. When Dr. King was murdered in 1968 (he was 39 years old then), we set up a phone bank at the School of Social Work and tried to bring families and friends back together. The rioting was so ferocious and disorienting that people got lost in it! Urban agony and “the fierce urgency of now.”
One of my assignments focused on a cluster of public welfare individual homes. Society named it “the projects.” The community was isolated, far from view by most Baltimoreans. Clearly planned residential segregation. Out of sight and mostly out of mind - invisible, inaudible, and denied - as local government designed and desired. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial segregation was entirely alive and very active. The homes were built next to long-haul railroad tracks that ran flat on the ground. There were no barriers to protect the residents from stepping onto the tracks and into train traffic. No fence, no bars or walls, no inclines or gates, no barricade against bloody disaster. WHY.
In the beginning, when I walked the streets in those impoverished neighborhoods, I was somewhat apprehensive. Much had been said about crime and substance abuse, alcoholism. But soon I noticed that the residents had embraced my presence. Wherever I walked, people watched me from their windows to see that I was safe. They nodded and gave a brief wave as I passed by, as if to say, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.” So, after a short time of acquaintance, my tension eased, and I could give full concentration to my job.
We called it “a voice for the voiceless.” I tried to find more money and work and child care for families. I found medical care for some. I wanted to turn a blind eye to fathers who lived with their families because the "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" (AFDC) law never made sense to me. (Families could not receive welfare funds if the father lived in the home! What self-evident nonsense! Does it really take a genius to see the obvious?) Here was an offensive and cruel paradox. First we passed a law that only broken families could receive financial aid. Many caring fathers - those who couldn’t find jobs or sufficient pay - left home in order to qualify their families for this assistance. Then came the “news” that broken families were a serious national socioeconomic problem, perhaps even requiring Federal government intervention for remediation.
I grew devoted to the people and committed to the job of righting wrongs. At the same time, I noticed that those outside the welfare communities disrespected the social workers who worked inside them. Society viewed the public welfare social worker and her low-income clients with almost equal contempt. So open was societal scorn. All of us, workers and clients, were vilified as incompetent loafers – or worse. It was a further confirmation of intractable, unmanageable discrimination. I don’t know why I was surprised by this, but I was…and this is still true, and I am still appalled and dismayed. The conscience of our country is put to shame. Is there indeed nothing new under the sun, I sometimes wonder…?
We can change what people do and what they say, but we cannot always or easily change how they feel. (We know it is possible, though.)
Racism is a thing of misery on every side! It is mind-bending. We can hardly imagine it if we haven’t experienced it. I used to dream of ending the poverty and anguish I saw there, the profound societal disrespect that seeped deeply into the souls of my low-income clients. Those inner souls would scream, “I’m a person, too!” It was a poignant protest against the unendurable: annihilation of the Self. They hated the wider world that so totally despised and rejected them, and they hated themselves especially. Rage turned inward – there is often no other place to safely direct so much intense feeling…until its periodic explosion in riots…during which the rioters also trash, burn and otherwise violate their own neighborhoods.
Self-loathing. It is a learned reflection. It mirrors society’s disposition: disposable sub-human. It is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad disease. It says life is cheap, and any behavior eventually becomes OK because “my life doesn’t matter.” Baldwin wrote that “the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” In other words, we were - and still are - effectively “radicalizing” whole groups of our own citizens, right here inside the USA. Some kids talked about “if I grow up,” not “when I grow up.” They were afraid of dying young, by senseless violence not of their own invention. The boys would join gangs to make themselves strong against society’s hate and an early death. The girls often had babies so that something precious and beautiful, of their own making, actually belonged only to themselves.
In his 1951 poem, “Harlem,” Langston Hughes warned the country this way:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink Like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Racism is toxic. Its consequences are poison to the racist himself, the injured, their communities, and the entire nation. Sometimes I was overwhelmed by what I saw. I always imagined myself in others’ place. It was a suffocating, paralyzing and helpless feeling, desperation, with no visible and assured escape hatch. I dreamed of ending that anguish. That was 50 years ago. I am still dreaming...
Baltimore is on fire, but this is not only a Baltimore problem. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, PhD sociologist and a U.S. Dept. of Labor assistant secretary at the time, knew it 50 years ago and wrote about it in what became known as the Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” 1965. The next year, it was required reading in our social science classes. He reported on socioeconomic issues for black Americans, issues of discrimination, social inequality, and limited opportunity. He argued in favor of government intervention for improvement: job programs, vocational training, educational programs and more. I am not sure 50 years have changed us very much in this requisite regard. We might need a contemporary, dedicated Moynihan to move our mountain of moral misdeeds. Or maybe we already have one such mover in our midst: our president – community organizer, lawyer, orator and author, biracial, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, experienced politician, man of influence and high connections – in his post-term years. We don’t know that yet.
I wish my dream would come true before I die, but wishing doesn't make it so. Neither does walking the streets. The one-by-one approach alone will never end the problems. They are too big and too complicated. A one-track answer won’t work. Much must be done. Laws should be a large part of the response, sensible national/Federal legislation. Positive government action. Over time, laws can change feelings, too. We know that because we have seen it. Maybe the new Attorney General of the U.S. can help... Maybe someday soon, Congress will return to functional sanity… Maybe the Supreme Court can help, if the justices are open-minded… Maybe we should revisit the Moynihan Report and commit ourselves to further exploring his suggestions. Education is most certainly one useful answer for good growth and change… Maybe a double dose of ongoing self-examination and compassionate whole-life partnerships would help us all. If that doesn’t work, increase the dose… Maybe all of this and then some… It could happen.
My dream may be deferred, but it is unbroken. Hope never stopped at all. Hope. A powerful force. Only with hope can we sustain the motivation to forge ahead. I found it in the most unlikely places – on the side streets of Baltimore. It was a lifetime gift donation from all my clients who refused to give up.
One of the most inspiring creations of any society is the person who has nothing to give but kindness, care for others, and hope.
There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights….One day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” -- Martin Luther King, Jr., May 28, 1963, On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial In Washington, D.C.
You must be the change you want to see in the world. -- Mahatma Gandhi
Tags: riots, racism, poverty, self-hate, change, legislation, education, partnership, hope * * * Rea Ginsberg is a retired director of social work services, hospice coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work.
“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted, but mostly they're darked. But mostly they're darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?” ― Theodor S. Geisel