The Week The Lights Went Out In America

October 8, 2013

Gas station displayed a sign that explained the flag policy during the first OPEC oil embargo and crisis (Oregon), May 1974. March 26, 2013. (NARA via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Gas station displayed a sign that explained the flag policy during the first OPEC oil embargo and crisis (Oregon), May 1974. March 26, 2013. (NARA via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It wasn’t the middle of September of ’08, either. It was the beginning of October ’73, forty Yom Kippur holy days ago. There had been signs for any American who had cared to look at the cracks in the US dominance of the world economy ceiling. Rising unemployment, higher inflation, new monetary control measure, competition from a mostly rebuilt West Germany and Japan. The twenty-eight year-long run America had as the undisputed and undefeated leader of the capitalist world was on its way to a close, and ninety-nine percent of all Americans didn’t know or didn’t care enough to know.

No, the Yom Kippur War between Syria, Egypt and Israel didn’t cause the US to become more dependent on the rest of the world. But our support of Israel against countries from which we imported oil did lead to OPEC’s decision to deny us oil. Up to that point, our government had pretty much done whatever it wanted geopolitically, on behalf of containing Communism and American corporations. It was this week forty years ago, though, that truly began to teach ordinary Americans that there would be consequences for our foreign policy actions without regard for folks who lived at the blunt end of them.

Egyptian forces cross on one of the bridges laid across the Suez Canal, October 7, 1973.   (CIA/Soerfm via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Egyptian forces cross on one of the bridges laid across the Suez Canal, October 7, 1973. (CIA/Soerfm via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I was just a couple of months away from turning four, but I do have vague memories of the week and month from four decades ago. Within a block of where my Mom worked, Mount Vernon Hospital, was a gas station, one that by the end of October had lines wrapped around the block as motorists in their six-miles-to-the-gallon guzzlers desperately waited for some petrol. It was loud and chaotic, from the little bit that I do remember. Fast forward to about a year later, when my Mom took me and my other brother Darren to the old Met grocery store on South Fulton in Mount Vernon. There, she complained about the $2.69 she had to spend on a five-pound bag of Domino’s Sugar ($14.53 in 2013 dollars). I remember her sighing about the high prices and the fact that her paycheck wouldn’t be able to keep up.

It would be years later still before I realized that the last of America’s easiest days as an economic and geopolitical superpower were during my years as a toddler. I did feel secure back then, not knowing about my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s insecurities about being a Black Southern girl living in and around New York City. I had yet to witness the violence embedded in my family, or in my neighborhoods, for that matter. I knew nothing of drug addiction or authentic Blackness, of racism and systemic job discrimination. I had yet to learn that the economic and educational opportunities that had been available to millions of Americans — almost regardless of race and gender — were about to become that much harder to attain and retain as I grew older.

Now, forty years later, as memories of the Reagan and Clinton years have faded, I think of America’s heady days, ones that now seem of lore. I realize that America could have even better days ahead. If we were to acknowledge human involvement in climate change and invest heavily in a green economy. If quality, well-funded universal pre-K to higher education became our reality, without creating one system for elites and another for everyone else. If we as a people finally said it was time to repair $3 trillion worth of infrastructural damage to our bridges and roads, to our sewer and water systems, and to our electrical grid. If we somehow decided to end our expensive wars on drugs and on Black men, on anyone whom we think (but do not know) may do our nation’s interests (if not our people) harm.

Collage of workers placing an F-Series bed onto frame at  Louisville Assembly Plant (Kentucky), 1973. ( a woman carrying a sign past a McDonald's on East 125th Street during a protest by fast food workers and supporters, New York, NY, April 4, 2013. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images via http//

Collage of workers placing an F-Series bed onto frame at Louisville Assembly Plant (Kentucky), 1973. (; a woman carrying a sign past a McDonald’s on East 125th Street during a protest by fast food workers and supporters, New York, NY, April 4, 2013. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images via

But I know that we won’t have those better days, at least not yet. Not with narcissistic politicians either lining their pockets with money or lining their minds with sugarplum hopes for the Rapture and Armageddon. Not with a media more interested in the political horserace and petty optics than in giving us the full story. And not with an American public more interested in Miley Cyrus than in funding for more psychologists in public schools.

It’s truly depressing to know how far our nation hasn’t come in four decades, virtually my entire lifetime. At least I know, though. For so many born after me — not to mention lacking self-reflection — they may never know what should’ve been.

Why Obama Is Only A Failed Centrist President

January 7, 2013

Photo portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson [our last transformational President] in the Oval Office, leaning on a chair, March 10, 1964. (Arnold Newman, White House Press Office via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Photo portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson [our last transformational President] in the Oval Office, leaning on a chair, March 10, 1964. (Arnold Newman, White House Press Office via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I don’t say what I have to say about President Barack Obama lightly. But in light of the recent “fiscal cliff deal”  and the negotiations process that preceded it, I’ve now become convinced that Obama will be seen as a pretty good president. Period. Obama hasn’t been a unique president, despite his race or relatively humble beginnings. Obama is hardly a great president, either. Nor will Obama be a transformational president. If anything, Obama falls right in line with every American president since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.

Photo of living presidents with then President-Elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 7, 2009. (

Photo of living presidents with then President-Elect Barack Obama in the Oval Office, January 7, 2009. (

The fact is, Obama is a centrist president, beholden to the military-industrial complex, prison-industrial complex, Wall Street and corporate interests, just like Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 before him. That Obama is Black and intellectual in his approach matters little in terms of actual policies or in the path that he and his administration have taken toward incremental policies and half-baked compromises. Based on some of Obama’s policies, I could even make the argument that the President is a borderline neo-conservative, although I don’t think you can generalize this argument to every policy.

This has been an argument I’ve made in my US History courses over the past couple of years. When I’ve raised the idea that Nixon was a liberal Republican, that President Bill Clinton was a neo-con (see the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and TANF welfare reform in 1996 as but two examples), and that Obama is hardly a liberal at all, my students have collectively gasped. How dare I say that Nixon was more liberal than Clinton, that Obama is somewhere between a centrist and a neo-con!

But then I’ve worked with them through discussion to talk about the major domestic and foreign policy agendas of the past seven presidents in comparison to our current president. On so many issues, from the US relationship with Israel to the War on Drugs, from welfare reform to financial deregulation, from a re-escalation of the Vietnam War to the surge in Afghanistan, there hasn’t been a nanometer of space of difference in executive branch decision-making. Whether the people in these positions of power have been Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, or Obama and Hillary Clinton.

So I’ve had my students work through parts of Obama’s agenda. The surge and gradual drawing down of US military forces in Afghanistan, in which part of their role is nation-building. “How is that any different from Bush 43?,” I’ve asked. The historic Affordable Care Act, a so-called universal health care bill that fails to cover 20 million Americans and works through complex networks of government subsidies and private insurers, a neo-con plan that failed as an alternative to single-payer under Clinton in 1994. “How is this really a liberal or progressive idea?,” I’ve asked. The continuing War on Drugs, the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the highest rates of deportation of undocumented immigrants ever. “But yeah, Obama’s a liberal!,” I’ve said sarcastically in concluding this discussion with my students.

Some folks, like the reformed neo-con Bruce Bartlett, have compared the Democratic Party of recent years to the liberal Republicans of yesteryear. Bartlett, though, has stopped short of calling Democrats centrist neo-cons, which is in fact a much more apt description. Bartlett also stopped short in time, as he argued that the tipping point for the Democratic Party’s movement from left-of-center to right-of-center began with President Clinton in the 1990s. But that’s incorrect. The tipping point began when the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition of labor unions and blue-collar Whites, Southern whites, Catholics and Blacks fell apart as part of a backlash against President Lyndon Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty in the late-1960s.

Photo of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon at the  Ronald Reagan Presidential Library dedication, Simi Valley, CA, November 4, 1991. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times).

Photo of Presidents George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford and Nixon at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library dedication, Simi Valley, CA, November 4, 1991. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times).

Most Americans, though, don’t have the knowledge or luxury of taking a long view of history and their lives in attempting to put Obama in context. The media’s constant coverage of every trumped-up, imagined or real crisis hardly helps matters, either. They assume on behalf of the public the idea that there are two equal and opposite sides to every issue and every argument, which means most journalists failed geometry in high school. As a result, most Americans believe that Obama’s a liberal because the media consistently makes the false claim that all Democrats are liberals and that a Black guy with a Harvard law degree who used to be a community organizer must be a liberal.

How is a budget cutting agenda that puts Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare on the table as entitlements (and not a paid-for weak social safety net) a liberal idea or policy agenda? How is coming out reluctantly in favor of gay marriage some great progressive stance, comparable to President Kennedy’s speech in favor of civil rights in 1963? How is consistently giving into oligarchic conservatives by pushing hard for a meager tax increase on the most privileged members of our nation — the people who benefited the most from 40 years of policies that have greatly increased the gap between rich and poor — part of a liberal strategy? It isn’t and they aren’t.

Obama being three steps to Congress’ left on gay marriage and a tax increase is an incredibly weak counterargument to the fact that he’s a centrist. And a failed one at that, as his centrism has been based on garnering bipartisan support of weak legislation in terms of socioeconomic appropriations and strong legislation in terms of defense and Big Brother-esque laws. Obama has pushed climate change, long-term unemployment and underemployment, social mobility and real education reform either off his presidential agenda or into the hands of the private sector.

Thank you, but no, Obama’s a centrist, not a liberal. If you want to see a liberal policymaker in action, the nearest place to go these days is Ottawa, not Washington.

Emancipation and Compromise

January 1, 2013

Statuary by the US Capitol, Washington, DC, December 25, 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP).

Statuary by the US Capitol, Washington, DC, December 25, 2012. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP).

Today marks 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued an order as Commander-in-Chief that granted freedom to slaves in territories that remained in rebellion against the Union. It enabled Lincoln to become know as the Great Emancipation, and paved the road for the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery in the US, nearly three years later. This is a great thing to remember on this New Years Day, and yet, the Emancipation Proclamation exemplifies flaws in the political tactics of our leaders.

We seldom see real, lasting changes in our nation. Our Founding Fathers wrote our very Constitution with the expressed purpose of protecting “life, liberty, and property,” specifically the property of rich White male slaveowners and merchants. Lincoln used his office to strip the Southern one-percenters of the Civil War period of the one thing that was central to their “way of life,” the liberty of owning African slaves, of treating humans as property.

But even Lincoln’s proclamation was as much political posturing as it was an order on the road to emancipation and abolition. It would take the bulk of 1863, 1864 and 1865 to bring enough of the Confederate states under Union Army control to make emancipation a reality for three out of four million slaves. Border states and areas already under Union Army would only be forced to free the other one million slaves with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. This wasn’t exactly a great compromise, especially for the slaves and for abolitionists.

Fast-forward a century and a half to our tumultuous Congress and jelly boned White House. They’re fighting over tax cuts that should’ve never been enacted in ’01, or expanded in ’03. The cuts should’ve expired two years ago instead of fourteen hours ago. The compromise that the Senate passed at 2 am today is weaker than the Emancipation Proclamation. At least Lincoln knew that he had an Army and Navy that could enforce it over time. In the case of President Barack Obama, Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, the compromise deal is worth about as much as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” Munich Agreement with Hitler in September 1938, and led indirectly to World War II less than a year later.

"Kicking the can down the road" cartoon, September 23, 2012. (Clay Bennett/ Chattanooga Times Free Press).

“Kicking the can down the road” cartoon, September 23, 2012. (Clay Bennett/ Chattanooga Times Free Press).

The media loves to say that “both sides need to compromise to make a deal.” President Obama loves to say that “no side can get a hundred percent of what they want.” Let’s follow this line of thought by looking at the compromises that led to the Civil War and Lincoln’s proclamation. Here’s seventy-six years of compromise (starting with the US Constitution):

  • Kicking can of end of US participation in international slave trade to 1808;
  • African slaves (not term used) equated to three-fifths of a person for political representation purposes;
  • Missouri Compromise of 1819 (creating distinction between slave and free states at the 36°30′ parallel);
  • Gag Resolution (forbade Congress from debating anti-slavery bills on the floor of the House and (essentially) the Senate between 1836 and 1844);
  • The Compromise of 1850, which tore up the Missouri Compromise, opening up new territories for slavery’s expansion, while allowing California into the Union as a free state; and
  • Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) officially declared policy of “popular sovereignty,” that each territory in its petition for statehood could determine to be a state that allowed or did not allow slavery.

Years of compromise led to increasing violence to protect or destroy slavery (including “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859), and of course, to the Civil War. So while Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was itself a compromise, it might as well have been an ultimatum compared to the previous seven decades of inaction and negotiation.

Emancipation Proclamation reproduction, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center,  Cincinnati, OH, (photo taken November 15, 2009). (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Emancipation Proclamation reproduction, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, OH, (photo taken November 15, 2009). (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Not that taxes, spending and the social safety net are the same as slavery. But after nearly four decades of declining social mobility, expanding economic inequality and every conceivable break in favor of the wealthy and corporations, isn’t it time to stop compromising our lives and our children’s lives?

Unless we consider the reality that Congress is only doing what its greedy Civil War-era predecessors did a century and a half ago. That the White House is too beholden to moneyed interests to stand for anything that truly helps ordinary Americans. That it will take something far more serious than the Great Recession (or even something potentially as violent as the Civil War) to make this group finally find religion.

Providing the Wrong Frame for Higher Education

December 12, 2012

Neera Tanden and Drew Gilpin Faust, Center for American Progress' "Investing in the Future" event (screen shot), Washington, DC, December 10, 2012. (

Neera Tanden and Drew Gilpin Faust, Center for American Progress’ “Investing in the Future” event (screen shot), Washington, DC, December 10, 2012. (

I was supposed to attend the Center for American Progress event “Investing in the Future: Higher Education, Innovation, and American Competitiveness” yesterday morning (who does a two-and-a-half-hour event two Mondays before Christmas, really?). But my son happened to have his worst night of sleep in his nine and a third years of life, compounded by a minor asthma attack. So I didn’t get to go.

I’m glad that I didn’t attend, though, as the above link to the site and video will indicate to even an educator with the patience of Jesus. After watching and skipping through the 138-minute recording today, I realized that passing a kidney stone (which I’ve actually done) would be preferable to hearing the drivel that the Center for American Progress, Harvard University and Google sponsored yesterday.

It was a tour-de-force of K-16 education as preparation for practical careers and scientific/technological innovation. Period. Not education to formulate a critical mind. Not education for the betterment of society, for social justice, for changing the world. No, Americans, our very future depends purely on the willingness of Harvard (and other elite universities), corporations and government to work together to turn out millions of students to work in STEM fields, apparently the only fields that matter in the twenty-first century.

Yesterday’s Center for American Progress event proves, more than anything else, that K-12 public education has lost the battle for educational equity and US higher education is in the process of becoming a two-tiered system. The comments and answers from Neera Tanden, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, Glenn Hutchins, Gene Sperling, et al. were indicative of a class of folks who hold little interest in providing the resources necessary to level the educational playing field for poor and struggling working class students.  Or, when they did address K-12 education, it was purely in technocratic scales-of-efficiency terms, as they gave K-12 most of the blame for America’s reduced economic competitiveness.

Box of Cracker Jack bags, December 11, 2012. (

Box of Cracker Jack bags, December 11, 2012. (

But this is the problem with leaders involved in American education these days. Instead of opening up K-12 education to real innovations in philosophy, curriculum, a teacher’s ability to use all of their skills (measurable and intangible) in a student-centered classroom, critical thinking and neuroscience, we were given the typical mantra of testing, teacher effectiveness and cost-cutting. It means that even among our alleged best thinkers — apparently still White, mostly male and over fifty years of age — the best ideas involve an expansive education for the well-off and a Cracker Jack education for the growing numbers of the poor and those struggling to remain above the poverty line.

As for higher education, I’ve already noted that we are well on the way to a two-tiered system in the US (see my post “edX and Ex-lax (& Higher Education’s Future)” from September ’12). One tier will consist of group of schools that will remain elite and near elite, the top 500 or so colleges and universities in the country. The other group of colleges (public, HBCU and for-profit) will struggle mightily with the weight of providing a specialized education for the masses of unprepared and underprepared low-income first generation students, of color and otherwise. They will increasingly lose out to the elite university/corporate/government partnership that will lead to a cheaper, streamlined college education, and mostly online. And all without the complications of providing a well-rounded, liberal arts education.

Ben & Jerry's half baked ice cream flavor, December 11, 2012. (

Ben & Jerry’s half baked ice cream flavor, December 11, 2012. (

The speakers at “Investing in the Future: Higher Education, Innovation, and American Competitiveness” also discussed the need to make higher education cheaper. Their solutions of cheaper loans and more stringent requirements for students to meet in order to obtain merit-based aid is nothing new, and in fact reflects trends that date back to the late-1970s. Even Faust’s encouragement of spreading the Harvard solution of providing need-based aid for low-income students only works for high-achieving students, the “low-hanging fruit” strategy that allows the other grapes on the trees to rot.

To be sure, the speakers at this event also talked about comprehensive immigration reform, green jobs/economy and universal health care. But without sufficient attention to the millions and millions of poor and of color people affected by their words and deeds, the Center for American Progress event might as well have been called “Investing in the Oligarchic Past.” Same new-old solutions, same half-baked ideas that show that as long as American education and industry leaders try to force solutions on our poor, we’ll be about as competitive as the USSR was between Stalin and Glasnost/Perestroika.

The Human Race Addendum

August 13, 2012

Two years ago, I wrote a post about a curious observation I made about inequality, unfairness and humanity, all courtesy of my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce (“Hard Work and the Human Race,” September ’10 – see below). In the thirty-four years since this observation, it’s fairly obvious that the great college football coach legend Barry Switzer was right about how people like Romney think about their station in life. “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan as his vice-president is a confirmation of the idea that there are folks in America who truly believe that their success came only as a result of hard work, luck and prayer. But to use a better analogy, it’s easy to be a winner when your born in middle of the fourth lap of a 400m race, while someone like me had to fight just to get in the starting block. Politically, Carter and Reagan was the spark for my understanding of economic inequality. Three and a half decades later, the Romney-Ryan ticket reflects the long and winding road this mythology of “equal opportunity, not equal outcomes” has taken our nation. Only, equal opportunities do not exist for most of us, as the track and field analogy illuminates.


When I was nine years old, my fourth grade teacher at Holmes, Mrs. Pierce — a grouch of an older White woman, really — talked about the human race and attempted to describe our species’ variations. She tried to do what we’d call a discussion of diversity now. It went over our heads, no doubt because she didn’t quite get the concept of diversity herself.

Holmes Elementary School, Mount Vernon, NY [Top left corner was Mrs. Pierce’s classroom in 1978-79 year], November 22, 2006. (Donald Earl Collins).

Like the fourth-grader I was, I daydreamed about the term, human race. I thought of Whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, young and old, male and female, from all over the world, all on a starting line. It was as if four billion people — that was the world population in ’79 — were lined up to run a race to the top of the world. In my daydream, some were faster than others, or at least appeared to be, while others hobbled along on crutches and in wheelchairs. Still others crawled along, falling farther and farther behind those who were in the lead, the ones that looked like runners in the New York City marathon. Before I could ponder the daydream further, Mrs. Pierce yelled, “Wake up, Donald!.” as if I’d really been asleep.

A high school friend recently gave me some much-needed feedback on my Boy @ The Window manuscript. Her feedback was helpful and insightful, and very much appreciated. But some of it reminded me of the realities of having someone who’s a character in a story actually read that story. Their perceptions will never fully match up with those of the writer, which is what is so groovy and fascinating about writing in the first place.

One of the things that struck me as a thread in her comments — not to mention in so many conversations I’ve had with my students about race and socioeconomics — was the theme of individual hard work trumping all obstacles and circumstances. As if words, slights, and mindsets in the world around us don’t matter. As if poverty is merely a mirage, and bigotry, race and racism merely words on a page. Sure, a story such as the one I have told in this blog for the past three years is about overcoming roadblocks, especially the ones that we set ourselves up for in life, forget about the ones external to our own fears and doubts.

At the same time, I realized what my weird daydream from thirty-one years ago meant. Some people get a head start — or, in NASCAR terms, the pole — before the race even starts. That certainly doesn’t make what that individual accomplishes in life any less meaningful, but knowing that the person had an advantage that most others didn’t possess does provide perspective and illuminates how much distance the disadvantaged need to cover to make up ground. Those who limp and crawl and somehow are able to compete in this human race have also worked hard, likely at least as hard as those with a head start, and more than likely, harder than most human beings should ever have to work.

2009 London Marathon. (

Plus, there are intangibles that go with race, class and other variables that determines how the human race unfolds. “Good luck is where hard work meets opportunity,” at least according to former Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso. Most human beings work hard, but all need opportunities that may provide a real sprint to catch up or take a lead in the human race. Family status, political influence, social and community networks, religious memberships, being in the right place at the right time, all matter and are connected to race and class, at least in the US.

The moral of this story is, hard work matters, individual accomplishment matters. Yet a panoramic view of the race in which humans are engaged matters more in putting our individual successes and the distance that remains in some reasonable perspective. Without that, we’re all just pretending that individual hard work is the only thing that matters, when that’s only half the battle, or half of half the battle.

The “Invisible” Poor & The Middle Class Mythology

July 19, 2012

Transparent (or invisible) Woman (cropped), July 19, 2012. (

This past weekend, I found myself drawn into the discussion of the middle class and middle class aspirations on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes (otherwise known as “Uppers”). It was a good and yet wholly unsatisfying discussion of technical definitions of what middle class is and of the political optics of only discussing the middle class as a socioeconomic category. Chris Hayes and his guests justified this with an all-too-common refrain. “If you’re poor, you’re aspiring to be middle class,” Hayes said on Saturday. With that, Hayes and his guests rendered America’s poor invisible, and failed to see beyond the politics of invisibility in the process.

There are two issues here, and many layers within them, about America’s poor, working, on welfare, or otherwise. One issue is that journalists, commentators, political operatives and most politicians treat the poor as if they are an unknowable group of people. It’s as if they all think the same way, as if there are all Black or of color, and a complete drag on the American economy and the federal budget. And that’s on a day in which the media and politics deem America’s poor as discussable. Most of the time, America’s poor are invisible, shoved into the middle class category by commentators and politicians at every turn.

Yes, America’s middle class is struggling too, fighting tooth and nail to not slip into the class of the invisible working poor, treading water to avoid food banks and food stamps. But they have something to struggle with — and for — at least. Their homes, their cars, a retirement account, their families’ net worth, all accoutrements of being middle class in America. America’s poor don’t possess anything to struggle with or for.

Chris Hayes on a train in Switzerland, November 10, 2008. (Matthew Yglesias via Wikimedia Commons/ Released to public domain via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Except, maybe, with their vote, if they care to vote at all. Yet no mainstream commentator nor presidential candidate has truly spoken to their needs, their plight, to how their situation is completely interconnected with the struggles of the American middle class, not their aspirations. Not Chris Hayes, nor his weekend compadre, Melissa Harris-Perry, not President Barack Obama, and definitely not the presumptive GOP nominee, Mitt Romney.

It’s a story I’m all too familiar with, as someone who grew up in poverty in Mount Vernon, New York. Not to mention as someone who had to go to college and graduate school and then struggled for two years at part-time work before finding a job with a Ph.D. in ’99 (see my “The Five Senses of Poverty” post from July ’10). I was thirty years old by the time I earned a middle class income. Yet in all of that time, the only mainstream politician who spent time on the issues of the American poor as if these were real people was President Jimmy Carter, and we know what happened with him. Outside of my degrees and my publications, I was invisible until the fall of ’99.

Otherwise, it’s been four decades of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton concerned with “welfare queens,” “pink Cadillacs,” and “mend it, don’t end it” welfare policies, and the media following suit. It’s like being kicked hard by someone as one is laying on the ground with broken ribs and internal hemorrhaging, as if they want to poor to die, painfully.

But it’s not just the ones with microphones and word processing programs that kill America’s poor by rendering them invisible. Despite the general notion that the media and politicians nurture — that everyone not rich aspires to be firmly entrenched in the middle class — most Americans middle class and poor aspire to be rich, wealthy, well-off.

Creflo Dollar, pastor, World Changers Church International, November 1, 2010. (Zwicky Institut via In public domain.

This is the other neglected issue, whether inadvertent like with Chris Hayes and his guests on Uppers, or deliberate on the part of President Obama and Romney. Why so? Because they don’t acknowledge that it’s hard to be truly middle class in America these days. To be in the middle class, one must borrow, borrow, borrow, beg and sometimes steal while struggling to pay student loans, car notes, a mortgage and child care costs.

This wasn’t the case even thirty years ago, before the severe double-dip recession, high interest rates and inflation and Reagan Revolution took full hold. Then, a high school diploma and raw initiative was all most folks needed to find a job at a GM plant or to get an administrative job in government or with a large corporation (although, typing at 90 words per minute enhanced a woman’s chances, at least). Now, two years of college or postsecondary technical training, some experience in a specialized field, and a personal connection is the floor for a living wage — not exactly middle class. Of course, no one wants to be in the basement with nearly one in five Americans, 50 million in all, working just to be poor.

Stacks of money, April 13, 2008. (Allureme via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via cc-Attribution 3.0 License.

America’s poor and fledgling middle class both aspire to be rich (or die tryin’), and not just middle class. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity, mega-churches and the cult of prosperity as these pastors reimagine the New Testament. The endless lines for Powerball and Mega Millions whenever the pot is more than $100 million. The fascination with reality shows about the well-off or about competing to be well-off. All of this is the manifestation of the warping of the American Dream since the early 1970s, where the pursuit of riches has led to debt slavery for millions.

The old American Dream has become myth, and the old American middle class is but the story of Camelot, Timbuktu and Shangri-La. In our new world, “the poor will be with us always” has been made a plain and unyielding truth by those in power, reinforced by those with a media platform.


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