Differences, Perceived: A letter to my homes.
For a child born today, 1990 is further in the past than the first moon landing was at the time of my own birth. For a child born today, it might seem that political stability is an equally distant memory, fading into our national conscience like an old yearbook photo gathering dust on the mantle.
I am just lucky enough to remember a world before cell phones and WiFi, and just unlucky enough to have watched as social media became a singular influence on each of our daily lives. I was born in the South, to a Confederate and a Yankee, and raised for the most part in various places across the state of New York. I have lived in suburbs, in farmland, and now live in the greatest metropolis the known universe has ever seen. I have, I think, seen a lot of different people in my short time on Earth.
The place I’ve lived the longest, nestled in the breadbasket of the American Revolution that is Schoharie Valley, New York, is a beautiful place filled with honest people — about 3,500 of them. They are kind and funny, humble to the point of arrogance, and damned hard-working.
Looming over the sign welcoming visitors to my hometown is an even larger, blue and red billboard with a name on it: TRUMP.
The place I live now, nestled between a dominantly Jewish neighborhood and the melting pot of Broadway in the North Bronx, could not be more different if it tried. In all the days between my eighth and eighteenth birthdays in the valley, I met one openly Muslim individual: an exchange student from Yemen who was on my soccer team as a high school freshman. This morning I saw six hijabs before I even got on the subway to work.
The best part of this dichotomy, I think, is that I understand a little bit about what motivates people in both types of environments. The “economic anxiety” that the progressive Left mocks in its right-wing counterparts is not a joke. I have seen white children so destitute they were asked to leave a public school because of the odor they gave off. I have seen welfare recipients in all shades. I have seen my own home foreclosed upon.
I also know that those destitute white children and I faced a different reality in our poverty (or near-poverty) than our black and brown-skinned counterparts. I have spent days at Rikers Island, and have heard the voices of men who are more than thirty times more likely than I am to be arrested for possession of a drug I have used before. I have seen teenagers, barely responsible enough to fill out a college application without a parent, crushed beneath the heel of an unforgiving and inflexible criminal justice system. Statistically speaking, those teenagers are likely to spend the rest of their lives wrapped in the tentacles of that system, some for the childish mistakes I was once merely chastised for at the principal’s office.
When I read not long ago about the ways Emmett Till’s accuser manufactured the story that saw a 14-year old boy beaten, shot, and tossed like refuse into the Tallahatchie River, I grew furious with the indignity of it. The casual way in which a white life admitted that nothing more than a whim extinguished a black life is one that resonated with me, as a human being. That young man could have been my classmate, my friend, my neighbor. Not surprisingly, my hometown, which is approximately 98% white, seemed apathetic to the injustice. It was not a problem they could contextualize; racial injustice is as alien to a majority of them as the surface of Venus. They have friends who are minorities, certainly, but this is not the crux of the debate. This lens is skewed between the urban and the rural. The problem is, neither knows the other’s struggles truly.
What my hometown folk do know of the urban black population is fed to them largely on TV. They befriend some undocumented immigrants from South America, on the farms that dot their landscape, but the urban, black male is projected to them only on COPS or JAIL or whatever else is on Spike TV after work. They are led to believe through Fox News that urban protesters are merely rioting, that every individual who shoots a cop and has “Black Lives Matter” on their Facebook profile is somehow representative of the whole minority community. In a similar way, city-dwellers see them as uneducated, racially intolerant, unsympathetic, and hickish. Neither has ever met the other. Neither understands that their struggles are more similar than they are different.
Both are victims of toxic housing markets, and suffer sub-par educational investments. The nearly all-white public high school I graduated from in Middleburgh, New York, was poor, underfunded, and led nowhere for most students. Almost 50% of the 800-person strong student body is on free or reduced lunch benefits. In 2014, 379 of 809 students were “economically disadvantaged.” In 2012–13, my all-white high school could muster only 30% proficiency in English Language Arts; a 14% proficiency in Mathematics; and a less-than-stellar 67% proficiency on the New York State Regents exams. While this is not nearly as bad as the worst inner-city schools, neither is it a particularly flourishing environment. There’s also something to be said about a school with an 11:1 student to teacher ratio performing that poorly relative to a school in which 1 in 10 students is homeless. Either way, Betsy DeVos’ proposals on school vouchers and school choice would decimate them both.
In my hometown, crystal meth and heroine are increasingly worrisome epidemics. Like crack-cocaine in the city, the easily accessible dope alters lives, undermines public spending in the forms of healthcare and incarceration costs, and ultimately kills young people in any number of ways. In the last year alone I got word of at least three friends and acquaintances who’ve succumbed to overdose. Unlike their inner-city counterparts, white users are approached as in need of help; as if their addiction is a disease. This is the appropriate response. In Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, drug use is an excuse to lock up young people, deny addicts meaningful and necessary treatment, and drug users in public are recorded, demonized, and made viral for their tragedy. There is no difference, and yet difference is perceived.
The fight for an increased minimum wage is an interesting one; Conservatives will tell you it denies employers the ability to grow and leads to lay-offs and unemployment. Back on the farm, I worked in fast food for over two years. All six of the shift managers I worked with were adults between the ages of 25 and 40, and all of them made their livelihoods working in fast food. One of them used her student loan to buy a car after she got in an accident; several of my co-workers needed overtime just to make rent, which was tacitly denied by our employer more often than not. Increased wages to compensate for technological advances are necessary for all people — it isn’t just inner-city minorities who benefit from striking and organized labor protests.
My own father, an ardent supporter of Donald Trump’s fiscal agenda, admits that without Obamacare we would have been without insurance during much of the latter stages of the recession. He has conceded to me in the past that Bernie Sanders espoused ideas he could get behind — a focus on working class people and supporting the disenfranchised. On the other hand, my father is right to suggest Obamacare had certain flaws. For one, I don’t think the Individual Mandate is necessarily a righteous piece of legislation. But is it not in our country’s best interest when the healthy support the sick? Are progressives that backward for wanting pre-existing conditions covered? As an asthma sufferer since I was three years old, I wonder what the costs would have been for my family had it not been for the ACA.
Anecdote: I know families that have a strategy to purchase life insurance only when they think they’ll die within its term. They can’t afford it otherwise. Conservative lawmakers have no response to their woes. Conservative lawmakers also have no response for the many urbanites who work incredibly hard to support their families, who would crumble without the wider safety net that Obamacare casts for them. And still: a difference is perceived. There is not much difference there.
When Hurricane Irene decimated my hometown in the Summer of 2011, FEMA was slow to respond. When the national guard reached us, my small community had already begun its rebuilding efforts. Every single day for weeks, the resilient people of rural upstate New York picked themselves up by the bootstraps and scraped mud and filth from their walls, floors and ceilings. Businesses were vaporized overnight. Families were impacted forever. The tax base in many local communities eroded, still furthering educational and housing woes.
When Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina alighted upon their respective shores, it was the people of New Orleans and New York who did the work. When Kanye West reminded us that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, he was criticized harshly for his wording.
When the people of the Schoharie Valley cried out to FEMA for more help that never came, was there any difference?
And yet, difference was perceived.
If it hasn’t been made obvious yet, my theme here is this: We’ve let our phones, our computers, our Facebooks and Twitters dictate how we communicate. We’ve let our talking heads and politicians spread their bias or their spin and present to each of us a different picture of the world than is reality.
What we haven’t been shown is that which unites us. What we are never shown is the struggle inherent in being American, in being human in 2017. We don’t see these ropes as the ties that bind us and instead see handcuffs and barriers erected by our countrymen. We are one America in more than just name — we are one America in a majority of our experiences.
This issue of differences may not be resolved in a political climate such as this. This issue of seeing and communicating and seeking understanding may be impossible to rectify under so ardent an administration as our current one.
But I implore you: There may be less to resolve and see and communicate than you might think. Perhaps it’s all a matter of perception.