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Beneath the Clouds: A Reality Check

by the Outsider (November, 2005)


Get real, you’re not unique.  If you were unique, you wouldn’t have replaced honesty with political correctness, identity with conformity, and individuals with categories.  More importantly, if you were unique, you wouldn’t create stereotypes to classify anything and everything you don’t understand.  You see, we, as individuals, no longer question the information that is presented to us and we gave up on challenging the opinions of our so-called superiors a long time ago.  Gone are the days where we rose up against discrimination and where we spoke up to counter our government’s misuse of its authority.  Instead, we sheepishly go about our nine-to-five routines, taking immense care to make sure that we don’t mess up the mundane monotony of our everyday lives. Living in constant fear, we hold on to our anonymity with clutched fingers in the hopes that our true opinions go unnoticed, so that we may continue our convenient existence without disturbance.  Our kids will go to college, our retirement will be secure, and we’ll probably even get to see our grandchildren before we die.  Sounds perfect, right?


Wrong.  You see, in a democracy, people, not politicians, are the agents of positive change.  If we, the people, are too scared to take control of our future and instead immerse ourselves in apathy, then we leave our destinies at the mercy of the politicians in power.  By wholeheartedly accepting what the government tells us to be true without questioning it, we reduce ourselves to nothing but spectators of our nation’s fate. 


The people in power could not dream of a more perfect situation.  Think about it: they can push whatever policy takes their fancy and we won’t even bat an eyelid, because we are too distracted by our 401Ks, our Christmas shopping, and “The Days of Our Lives.” 


The truth of the matter, however, is we’re the only ones who can keep our government in check.  Without our intervention, the President could run rampant and launch a series of preemptive wars in countries we only see in movies.  Without our support, the poor in this country could find themselves locked in a cycle of destitution, where their own people would rather call them a “nigger,” a “spic,” or “trailer trash” than face them in person.


When we reach a comfort zone where we are so distracted by the material elements of our everyday lives that we stop paying attention to everything happening around us, we neglect our responsibility as citizens to hold our politicians accountable for their actions.  In this situation, the government no longer has to serve the needs of all its people.  The outcome: tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest one percent, wars that reward huge multinational corporations, and people all over the world that hate everything and anyone American. 


Unfortunately, there are consequences to our inaction; none more tragic than Hurricane Katrina, which showed us what happens when we don’t stand up for each other and leave it to the government to come to our aid.  


Picture this:  a hurricane with sustained winds of 140 mph is menacingly approaching Louisiana and is threatening a levee system never designed to withstand a storm of its strength.  Imagine for one second that you were the President of the United States and you were given repeated warnings that a hurricane was about to destroy your beloved New Orleans.  Would you take swift action and shore up the levees?  Or would you ignore the warnings, watch the levees burst before your very eyes, and give this explanation for what happened?  


“I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” -  President George W. Bush on “Good Morning America," September 1st, 2005, six days after repeated warnings from experts about the scope of damage expected from Hurricane Katrina.


Or would you try to be more upbeat and crack a joke with the same evacuees that are suffering because of your negligence?


"Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?" -  House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-TX), to three young hurricane evacuees from New Orleans at the Astrodome in Houston, Sept. 9, 2005.


Over 1,300 people are dead, thousands have lost their homes, and more than 4,000 people remain unaccounted for. 


“What didn’t go right?” -  President George W. Bush, as quoted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), after she urged him to fire FEMA Director Michael Brown "because of all that went wrong, of all that didn't go right" in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.


If we had demanded that the President immediately take action, then maybe there would have been more survivors and maybe we wouldn’t have seen police on the ground before doctors.  If we had insisted on a swifter response to the tragedy, maybe more of New Orleans’ underprivileged population could have escaped Katrina’s wrath, rather than just the wealthy handful. 


Of course, we’ll never know.


"You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals...many of these people, almost all of them that we see are so poor and they are so black, and this is going to raise lots of questions for people who are watching this story unfold." -  CNN's Wolf Blitzer, on New Orleans' hurricane evacuees, Sept. 1, 2005.


To me, Hurricane Katrina only raised one question:  Do we have to wait for a tragedy to befall the rest of us before we rediscover our humanity and our compassion? 


The real tragedy is that we don’t care because we don’t need to care.  We only care about things that directly affect us.  Who cares if poor people deal with tragedies on a weekly basis?  As long as our bubbles don’t burst, we don’t need to care about the three year old girl that got shot in a drive-by shooting, or the six year old boy who has to watch his mother get high off crack every night.  Just like in New Orleans, most of us will survive the trials and tribulations of life, because we have steady jobs and we can meet our basic needs, like putting food on the table, paying for cable TV, and securing our children’s futures.  But what about the 36 million American citizens living in poverty that don’t have the resources?  Or the more than 25 million children in this country that don’t have a father?  What of them? 


The day we become so consumed with our own existence that we care more about catching the latest episode of “American Idol” than we do about the fate of the less fortunate is the day we forget that we depend on each other to survive and that it is our duty as human beings to care for our brothers and sisters. 


Imagine if all of the poor people in America suddenly went on strike and quit their jobs.  Where do you think that would leave you?  Do you actually think that your lives would go on as normal?  There would be complete chaos and the daily routines that you’ve taken for granted for so long would be put in serious jeopardy.  The truth is that you wouldn’t be able to survive without the African Americans, the Mexican immigrants, or any of the poor people in America that have been doing all your dirty work. Your lives would be in ruin without them, and yet, either you don’t realize it or you just don’t give a damn. 


But how can you not care about what happens to them? 


How can you not care about the fact that they live in horrific conditions with little opportunity to change their situation? 


How can you not care that almost 70 percent of African American children will never know their father? 


How can you not be concerned for the kids that are left to roam the inner-city streets surrounded by prostitutes, gangs, and drug dealers, and who have no concept of what it’s like to have any of the luxuries you now consider basic necessities?


The day we choose to typecast the oppressed and stereotype them as lazy or inferior ‘good-for-nothings’ rather than explore the reality behind their situation, is the day we imprison them and take away their freedom.  My friends, that day was today and yesterday and every other day before that.  Racist faces, misplaced hatred, and misinformed opinions continue to plague our society, while people around us continue to suffer. 


All young Black males are dumb, lazy, and immoral.


All young, Muslim, Arab men are terrorists and evil “sand niggers” that despise democracy and hate America. 


It doesn’t matter that most African Americans live in conditions that are worse than those of people in developing countries like Mexico, Sri Lanka, and parts of India. 


It doesn’t matter that many Arab children will experience more death than laughter in their lifetimes, or that they will never even know what a school looks like or what a candy bar tastes like. 


No, it’s far easier to label people than it is to really try to understand their situation, or heaven forbid, lend them a helping hand.  So, instead of giving a beggar on the street spare change so that he can get something to eat, we’ll walk right past him as if he doesn’t exist.


After all, “he’s a lazy good-for-nothing bum.  I mean he has no good reason to be unemployed and I’m not going to give him money so that he can spend it on alcohol.  Besides, I might get thirsty later on and need that change to buy a soda.” 


We have no concept of what he’s been through or what we’d do in his situation, and yet we’re so quick to condemn him.  By our logic, a poor Black person trying to survive the streets is guilty until proven innocent, while a rich White person on trial for greed is innocent until proven guilty.  Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?


Then again, it doesn’t have to.  In this case, ignorance is truly bliss for all of us.  By carelessly stereotyping the poor, we can go on with our lives with a clear conscience and we can focus on the things that really matter, like the latest Reality TV show, the weather this weekend, or what color leather to get in our new SUV. 


The irony is that stereotypes are what connect us to the Osama Bin Ladens and the Hitlers of this world.  While Bin Laden labels America as the root of all evil in the world and Hitler labeled all Jews as the scourge of the Earth, we label poor people as defective Americans.  For Bin Laden, it’s infidels.  For us, it’s “trash.”  Sure, we don’t go around bombing the ghettos and we certainly don’t murder every poor person we get our hands on.  But, we do discriminate against the poor in this country, we have alienated them from their own society, and we continue to inflict extreme psychological pain upon them.


The biggest thing separating us from someone like Bin Laden, however, is that he channels his hatred through physical punishment, while we express our disapproval through psychological imprisonment.  While he seeks to rid the world of Americans, we seek to rid our communities of poor people.  Bin Laden uses bombs to terrorize America, while we use racial and income barriers to keep poor people out of our neighborhoods.  The fruits of these efforts:  September Eleventh and higher rates of housing segregation than there were in 1860, the first year of the Civil War. 


Bin Laden and America take different routes to a similar destination: a society where everyone is exactly the way we’d want them to be and where anyone different is cast aside.  So, while America spreads freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East, many of its own citizens live without freedom and languish in a society in which their own brothers and sisters would rather see them disappear than be liberated. 


I mean, how do we have the nerve to start wars in other countries in the name of freedom when we’ve taken it away from our own people? 


We’ve spent more money on the war in Iraq in two years than we usually spend on one year’s worth of public education in this country.  Over the last 20 years, we’ve increased prison funding by over 500 percent, while the amount spent on primary and secondary education has only increased by 33 percent.  But if less education leads to more crime, which leads to more people in prison, then wouldn’t prisons need more money if we’re spending less on education?  And if we increase prison funding, wouldn’t we be left with less money to spend on education?  Doesn’t that mean that there would be more poor people left to roam the streets and to commit crimes?


The fact is, money matters more to our society than morals.  Our passionate pursuit of material wealth has led us to neglect the well-being of our society and our environment.  Consider this:  in 2004, Americans spent almost $48 billion on the lottery alone.  That’s right, $48 billion.  Tell me, what drove you to buy that ticket?  Was it need or greed?  While you pictured yourself sipping a margarita on some secluded beach in the middle of the Caribbean, there were people all over the world that didn’t know where or how they’d find their next meal.  Had we put that money towards improving America’s public school system, we could have improved the lives of millions of people and we could have helped so many kids escape the clutches of poverty.  Instead, we choose gluttony over compassion and we choose odds of 1 in 135 million that we’ll win the lottery over a guarantee that our money will make a difference to millions of underprivileged people. 


What’s worse is that when you look at who plays the lottery you’ll find that low-income communities have generated substantial lottery sales across America.  The same greed that has driven many of us to neglect poor people has enticed them to spend an average of $150 a year on the dream of becoming rich and leaving their problems behind.  But when you’re earning minimum wage, a hundred and fifty dollars is more money than you can afford to lose on the lottery.  This only makes sense in a society where people are measured by the size of their wallet above all else, and where the only time you find respect and happiness is when you can afford it.  Poor people know that they won’t be treated like equals by the rest of America until they have the money and they will continue to search for wealth, and the respect that comes with it, no matter where they have to look.  After all, they have no choice; they have to play by your rules:  money over morals, greed over need, and me over us.


My judgment: all middle- and upper-class Americans are greedy, selfish, and complicit in the suffering of poor people in America. 


Nobody likes to be stereotyped, and yet it’s so easy to stereotype someone that we’ve all done it at some point in our lives.  We’ve forgotten how to look at things from other people’s perspectives and we almost always take the easy way out by judging someone without knowing a thing about them. 


Let me give you an example:  say you’re watching the nightly news and you see a headline that police have just caught a young black man that robbed a KFC in the Southside of Chicago, what are the first words that come to your mind?  Greedy criminal?  Lousy failure?  No-good bum that should be sent straight to prison?   


What if this man grew up without a father, with a mother that worked three jobs and was addicted to crack?


What if this man never had the opportunity to go to school because ever since he was a little boy he had to work to help his mother support him and his younger sister?


What if this man’s mother died of an overdose when he was eighteen and he had to find a way to put food on the table for him and his sister so that she can go to school without worrying about money?


What if the only choices this man had were either to work three minimum wage jobs twenty hours a day seven days a week, deal the same drugs that killed his mother on the street, or rob one measly branch of a multimillion dollar corporation like KFC?


Now tell me, what are the words that come to your mind?


The unfortunate truth is that the world as we know it has turned a deaf ear on the voices of the oppressed.  America continues to ignore the pleas of the needy and instead has given priority to the demands of the greedy.  By pretending that they don’t exist, we have pushed the underprivileged to the fringes of society and have left them to deal with a mountain of tragedy on their own.  By choosing to remain indifferent when we should be indignant, we have allowed our government to neglect the poor in this country, and we have left many children weeping alone on some inner-street corner because the pain is just too much for them to bear.  And, so the story goes, the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer; not only in terms of material wealth, but, more importantly, in terms of significance, of having a voice, and of obtaining respect.


The time has come for us to put an end to the struggle facing the poor.  The time has come for us, and not our profiteering politicians, to stand up for the rights of our brothers and sisters who are too weak to stand up for themselves.  We need to ask more questions, we need to be more involved in our nation’s fate, and we need to rise up and demand freedom for the poor in America.  We must counter greed with pleas for the needy and we must invest more of our money into America’s education and social support systems.  Before we judge anyone else, we must take the time to step into their shoes and see what the world looks like from their perspective, so that the next time we come face-to-face with poverty we can confidently crush it with our compassion. 


We cannot afford to wait any longer, because the day will come when we’ll need the underprivileged in America to stand up for us.  And when that day comes, what would you want them to do?  Would you want them to help you?  Would you want them to pull you out of your misery?  Well, if we continue on our current path, we shouldn’t expect them to do more than look at us and laugh, and then walk away as if we didn’t exist.


Because you know what?  If I was a poor person living in America and you needed me after years of watching me suffer without lifting a finger, that’s exactly what I’d do. 


The thing is though, the underprivileged in America are more courageous than any of us, because they’ve already answered our cries for help: while the rest of us are sitting in the comfort of our suburban homes, they’re in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting for the same freedom that their own people won’t give them at home. 







Copyright Kompashun 2006

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