Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez : The Real Problem of the 21st Century

30 Rock’s Kenneth the page (Jack McBrayer): “What about white men?”

I would go as far as to say that the defining problem of the 21st-century United States is not, as W.E.B. DuBois claimed of the 20th, the “color line.” Nor is it women’s rights. Instead, it’s a novel permutation of the two — discrimination and reproduction — as they intersect with poverty, which is of course inclusive of all women and children — of whatever background — living in poverty.

By Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez

[Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez is a teacher and author. She studied classics and comparative literature at UCLA where she received her PhD in 1995. She has taught at universities in the United States, Puerto Rico and Brazil. She posts on Lisa’s Blog which she calls an “experimental project” and points out that the “I” and other characters in her pieces are fictional composites. She posted the following on Dec. 19, 2008.]

Did you see the “30 Rock” episode last night? As Tracy and Jenna argue over who is more oppressed — black men or white women — Kenneth the page interrupts to ask “what about white men?” Then Jack the network executive steps in and tells Kenneth “white men? You have more like the socioeconomic standing of an inner-city Latina.”

Hilarious.

Seriously, it was very funny, grain of truth and all. Absurd of course to think of a white southern male being the lowest of the low on the identity prestige-cum-power totem pole in the United States, but that’s probably what made me giggle.

Perhaps I should have been insulted, being a Latina who has spent most of her life in inner cities. But somehow I was amused. It’s not because I’ve bought into some “post-racial” or “post-gender” notion of social relations in the U.S. — far from it — but rather because I was glad to see a moment in one of the finest comedies on air acknowledge that the white female/black male oppression debate that seethed under (and often over) the surface of the Clinton/Obama contest was, well, absurd. Absurd in part because neither Clinton nor Obama, much like Jenna or Tracy, could be rationally considered “oppressed” individuals (and their roles as representatives of “oppressed” constituencies are equally belied by their individual successes). Absurd too because this particular (and wildly popular) chapter of the “quién es mas oprimido?” game on the national stage utterly ignores the most disempowered and thoroughly disadvantaged group in the U.S.: low-income children.

And being that the children of inner-city Latinas are much more likely than most other children to suffer poverty and that Latinos will soon be the single largest community defined by racial/ethnic type in the United States, the symbolic white woman/black man contest for paragon of adversity seems, if not utterly irrelevant, than utterly out of date. Not to mention the fact that most Latino and African American children living in poverty are being raised by single mothers, nor the irony that, east of the Mississippi, many Latinas are often mistaken for black women.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that the defining problem of the 21st-century United States is not, as W.E.B. DuBois claimed of the 20th, the “color line.” Nor is it women’s rights. Instead, it’s a novel permutation of the two — discrimination and reproduction — as they intersect with poverty, which is of course inclusive of all women and children — of whatever background — living in poverty.

And if you think that Latino poverty is a function of illegal immigration, think again. The poorest Latino community by far is the stateside Puerto Rican community, which does not comprise immigrants. In case you didn’t get the memo, all Puerto Ricans have been born U.S. citizens since the passage of the Jones Act in 1917; as citizens, their movement from the island to the mainland U.S. is called migration.

When the pundits talk about children in poverty, usually the discussion pivots on education. No Child Left Behind, etc. What is needed is more money for education. Can’t argue with that.

Or can you? The overwhelming share of funding for public education goes to teacher salaries and benefit packages. The overwhelming majority of the nation’s public school teachers today are white females, and will continue to be (upwards of 80%) in the foreseeable future. Ergo, a bigger investment in public education means more employment and better pay for one particular cohort of white women, who are, by the way, as a group, already the largest single beneficiary of affirmative action.

Don’t get me wrong. Excellent teachers should be paid well, and good schools should be adequately funded, but how is that supposed to alleviate the poverty of the students who attend those public schools? The operative theory behind this idea is a convoluted mix of true and false assumptions. Go ahead, take the quiz:

(True or false) 1. Better pay for teachers magically transforms them into better teachers. 2. Better teaching results in better learning. 3. Better learning ensures that children born into poverty transcend poverty as adults. (The answers are: 1. false; 2. true; 3. false)

The problem behind this logic should be obvious. Better pay scales for teachers do not translate into better educational achievement for the poorest children, and the poorest children, even if they are excellent students, are least likely to go to college and thus improve their lifetime earning potential because, like more and more Americans in the lower income brackets, they can’t afford it. The state of Connecticut, for example, has some of the best pay and benefit packages for its public school teachers and some of the worst performing school districts in the nation. And of course those failing districts’ students are predominantly Puerto Rican and African American. Even with state income tax revenue supplementing those districts, they are failing, and even the college-bound students from the districts tend to come out grossly under-prepared for success in higher education and drop out of college at a rate far exceeding their suburban peers.

Which leads to the second theme the pundits revert to when children and poverty are the subjects. It usually goes something like “public schools can only accomplish so much. Parents need to take more responsibility for their children’s education and other needs.” This leads inevitably down the trail of the “culture of poverty” way of thinking, which has been echoed by countless politicians of all persuasions (even our President-elect — more than once). Simply put, the main idea behind this school of thought is that people living in poverty suffer from a congenital form of nihilism. They don’t succeed because they don’t even try to succeed; their cultures, in other words, set them up for failure. So transcending poverty requires a massive psychological cure that entails rejecting the culture into which the poor are born. Kill the culture, save the child.

One of the most blatant problems with that way of looking at it is the obvious fact that winners come from every socioeconomic strata. Losers too. Some gazillionaires never go to college, some college grads never find a good job. And I can say from experience that all the education in the world doesn’t make the world look at a Puerto Rican woman any differently. I have a PhD. I survived poverty. I should know.

(Though personal experience, in my experience, isn’t all that reliable when coming to big conclusions. Uh-oh, I feel a research project coming on…)

I think one thing that’s certain in all of this is that women need to have the right to choose whether or when to have children. We could make huge strides in ending childhood poverty if we simply incorporated better, more meaningful reproductive education and resources into the lives of our young adult women and girls. ALL of them. Really teach them the options they have. Empower them to make informed and careful decisions about their lives and the lives they may potentially create.

In the meantime, let’s hope our kids earn their rightful place at the center of national debate.

Source / Lisa’s Blog

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