Limits to Civility

Two posts in one day! But in these times it is necessary to clarify the boundary line of one’s tolerance for people with inhumane views. This lesson comes from my experience 1994-1996, as the UU parish minister in the midst of Dorchester, MA’s worst crime wave in ages. It was one of the worst in the nation, and it involved young people killing each other in gang wars.

The Boston Police responded with a community policing program which still gets mentioned as a high spot in policing history. Its foundation, I firmly believe, was the cops were required to live in the city’s narrow boundaries. No driving in from quiet suburbs for them. Shootings were on their streets, fights were on the playgrounds their children had to use also. Yes, that was a help.

Also, they. were good people. Mostly, anyway, often enough to make a difference in many cases. They also valued observations and analysis made by human beings, not computers.

Here’s what they came up with.

Gangs were found to consist of two layers. At the heart, and in the vanguard, stood people of genuine ill will. These leaders, selling drugs, wielding guns, hanging shoes, wearing bandanas, had no interest in community improvement alternatives or calls for civility. For them, arrest and jail was the answer. Cops drove around with warrants for these people at easy access.

The other layer consisted of folks who felt they had no alternatives for advancement in society, other than up the gang ladder. For these folks, the police urged practical educational support, jobs and job support, sports teams (remember midnight basketball?), and family support through community centers and adequate food and housing for those these young people were trying to support.

The current civility debate seems focused on the former group, fomenters not just of hate, but of cruelty and incapacity for those of whom they wish to make unwitting accomplices. I support this aspect of incivility. It is the other layer my previous post reaches out to.

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Racist Classist Disease Hysteria

Is it just me, or has anyone else started to worry about the racism and classism evidenced in the way ALL news channels — even the most leftist and objective (our go-tos are Free Speech, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, PBS and C-Span) have chosen to cast the Ebola virus as the newest non-European threat to homeland security while downplaying the virus that is actually killing our children, namely Enterovirus 68? Behind me I hear an excellent MSNBC commentator talking about the racism of hyper-reporting about Ebola. Good job.

But the second part is, what about the race and class factors that might be driving EV-68 right here in the good ol’ US of A?

Here are the glimmers I see: the most visible risk factor for this disease is childhood asthma. Childhood asthma is known to predominate among children living in substandard housing, especially where cockroaches and rodents might be present. A larger proportion of these children are African American, but all of them, of any race, are poor. So by definition, they have parents and other caregivers who have less and less time to spend on housekeeping because minimum wage jobs require more and more high-energy hours to keep a house at all. Poor public transportation adds to those absent hours: how many bus and train systems cut back on route intervals just when overnight and late shift workers need them most? Complicating this factor further is that many of these families lack adequate childcare or neighborhood infrastructure, forcing conscientious parents to shell out big bucks for cable and tell the kids to stay inside, open the door to no one, avoid trouble.

So where are these kids spending time when they’re not in their substandard housing? Why, in their public schools. Here again, budget cuts postpone more and more necessary repairs, much less routine preventive maintenance. Class sizes are going up, so that if one child is sick, more children are in that child’s class. And in many cases, you can forget about a school nurse or sick room. Cut — with no way to send the sick child home to a locked, empty apartment.

And even if the concerned parent wants to bring the child to a clinic or doctor, they might or might not have an accessible, affordable facility. And that facility’s bean counters might not want to screen every coughing child for EV-68 at the first presentation. Fear of one Munschausen Mom will doom how many sick children?

Again, these observations only pertain to asthma, not EV-68. But if asthma (of which I am a chronic sufferer) is the main predictor, then these are relevant questions. Biological tests go only so far; once you hit epidemics and clusters, it’s about public health and public policy.

So far, I have seen only one picture of only one of the children dealing with post-EV-68 paralysis. That young man is black.

When Math Was a Capital Crime

It’s impossible to remember all the books I’ve read, all the stories they contained, but I do try to combine my memory of stories with the books and authors who brought them to my attention. Alas, that does not apply to this story. But the truth of it has been borne out many times.

The Sharecropper Era was a terrible time in United States history. Not all sharecroppers were former slaves, many were also former smallholders who could not compete economically against the large landowners who undersold them by exploiting the sharecropper system. “Exploit” here does not mean “they employed that system;” it means, “they controlled it, manipulated it, and violated every safeguard by which the sharecroppers ostensibly had the right and power to earn their way off the land.” Some of their tricks could be readily spotted: the false weight scale, the healthy product discarded for imaginary imperfections.

But then, there was also “the tab.” Miners would have had the same problem. If you couldn’t add up what you spent in the company store and subtract what you paid back, with a record verifiable by outside impartial witnesses, your chances of earning your way out of bondage went way down. When The Freedmen’s Schools went up, “writing” did not mean poetry, it meant “record-keeping.” “Arithmetic” did not mean equations, it meant household financial transactions. And lynch “mobs” knew who the really outstanding students were.

This was the story that stuck with me. My father had lived in the south for much of his adolescence, and believed the myth that lynch campaigns (we now know there was no “mob” — “impassioned lack of discipline” — about them) devoted their attention to those who disturbed the public peace with violence: housebreaking and such. But no, it was those who disturbed the ancien regime by helping their friends and family keep proper records about weights turned in, money paid (or, in the case of wages, not paid), and then, what was charged and paid back in the stores.

Other than actually picking cotton and tobacco, this doesn’t strike me as very different from how the powers-that-be run our nation today. Do we really know the terms and exclusions of our credit card bills, our health insurance, our mortgages? Do we know who we owe, how much we owe them — and what we are paying back? For many of us, the answer to that, is “no.”

So when Americans fall behind the rest of the world in math, the most important problem is not that employers are forced to accept less effective employees. The most important problem is that the average American, as a householder, as a voter, as a public watchdog, has no idea who owes what to whom. No idea how it was accrued, and, above all else, when it will be paid back.

I take this to be some of the frustration behind Tea Party anger. Most of them appear to have grown up with an expectation of controlling all these numbers, these budgets, these decisions. Beyond the issues of racism, of sexism, of skill levels, I share with them this simple pain: we have absolutely no power to put this back into simple, solvable math.