In a research course during a graduate program in counseling, students were given a choice between completing a traditional research project, with rigorous statistical standards, or completing what was then called “action research.” I chose the latter being delinquent in mathematics.
The program that a team of students designed involved visiting food pantries and soup kitchens in an urban area and determining who used these facilities and what those people’s food needs were. The team on which I worked developed surveys to measure the variables we examined, and the project was quite useful in finding out about the needs of people who frequented soup kitchens.
It is with the same interest in the social sciences that I use when meeting people and asking about their lives and how they view themselves and the surrounding society. I attempt to go beyond the ignorance is everywhere observation and try to find out what’s going on. This line of reasoning about the world is especially important as economic and political forces have moved this society to the far right and the frayed social safety net has more holes in it today than a block of Swiss cheese.
I am amazed at what I find during the days I spend in an area of New York City that has suffered some of the worst economic, social, and political consequences from the loss of the social safety net, or what Martin Luther King, Jr. called programs of social uplift. Malcolm X had more radical plans of self-sufficiency for his community, but that is a debate for another time.
The first meeting came along Fifth Avenue, the demarcation line between the east and west sides of Manhattan. The people conversing speak of kids in the surrounding neighborhood who use drugs and become nuisances to many on the streets going about their daily lives. The overriding theme of the conversation is that those kids need to be jailed. An observer might offer that for 50 years the so-called War on Drugs has been official policy, and it has decimated communities already hammered by racism, several economic downturns, and the effects of globalization.
I meet with Ed in the cafe of an upscale food market. He has a good state government job and thinks Trump’s reelection is inevitable, a point of view that I hear repeatedly on the streets. Perhaps elections mean nothing, as Philip Berrigan believed, but I hold to the premise made by Martin Luther King, Jr. that programs of social uplift are important to the survival of many people. There has been a program of social welfare in force since the 1950s that has fed the insatiable appetite of the military and military contractors with trillions of dollars and fewer people protest that obscenity than ever.
Gary and I have met several times in an apartment building and while walking in the same geographical area where the apartment building is located. He and his family are immigrants from the Caribbean. He says that turning away immigrants at the US/Mexico border is a valid policy of the Trump administration. He compares the hard work of his family in the US with those immigrants who he feels want a free ride. I can’t bring myself to raise issues of societal unrest in many of the Central American countries where immigrant adults and children have come from to the US border, the US role in those nations, or the treatment of innocent children at the border. This conversation is not a debate, so I just listen.
Again and again I hear the argument on the streets from people that the economy is humming along and that’s all that really matters. With about 43% of people in the US at or near poverty, many living paycheck to paycheck, and those same people not able to meet a $400. emergency, a humming economy seems light years away.
Michelle Alexander writes in the New York Times (“The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration,’” January 17, 2020):
Our nation’s prison and jail population had quintupled in 30 years, leaving us with the highest incarceration rate in the world. A third of black men had felony records due in large part to a racially biased, brutal drug war — and were relegated to a permanent second-class status. Tens of millions of people in the United States had been stripped of basic civil and human rights, including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, education and basic public benefits.
The political strategy of divide, demonize and conquer has worked for centuries in the United States — since the days of slavery — to keep poor and working people angry at (and fearful of) one another rather than uniting to challenge unjust political and economic systems. At times, the tactics of white supremacy have led to open warfare. Other times, the divisions and conflicts are less visible, lurking beneath the surface.
The handwriting on the wall couldn’t be clearer. Marching on the streets and carrying signs that read “Hurray for our side,” will accomplish next to nothing. Raised consciousness is not the ideal needed now; it’s action that’s needed here.