It’s time to talk the right talk when it comes to combating poverty in America.
“How much is this?” the woman asks, pointing to a book on Egypt. “It’s in French and is 40 dollars,” replies the street vendor. “I am not going to get it now,” the woman says and walks away. At first sight this interaction seems trivial — one between vendor and potential customer. But it is not. Context says otherwise. The incident happened in Harlem. The vendor is black. The customer is white. If the latter had taken the time to open the cover of the used book, she would have noticed that it was marked at a sale price of 25 U.S. dollars. The vendor believes that the woman can afford to pay a high price for the book. This opinion is based on her skin color and the privileges that come with it.
Race and class are intricately linked in the United States. This relationship is on display in Harlem and other cities undergoing gentrification. The latter is a buzz word that signals many things to people. But, to understand it, one must look at race and class, along with the movement of people. These factors have always played important roles in the history of Harlem.
Harlem, best known for its artistic renaissance in the 1920s and 30s, and home base for black political movements throughout the 20th century, continues to be a bastion of black culture. The crack epidemic of the 1980s and the violence that followed suit were attempts to destroy the people and what they stood for. Fortunately, such attempts failed, due in large part to the resilience of the people who call Harlem home.
New buildings are being built in Harlem. Trendy boutiques, café, and restaurants line its avenues. These signs (some might call them progress) come with a price. Rent is skyrocketing. Many long-time residents feel that they are being pushed out by landlords who are willing to rent to newcomers because the newcomers can afford to pay the high price of rent. Some of the newcomers are bypassing rental properties and are purchasing homes in Harlem because they can do so.
Some people, especially those of the school of capitalism, might see no wrong in what is happening in Harlem. A closer look tells that a philosophy of Social Darwinism is at play. Those with money survive while the poor does not. Tax breaks and similar incentives ensure that the rich, or those with money, survive the system in place. The poor, if he is helped by the government, remains poor. A person who is poor and is receiving housing subsidies cannot earn above a certain annual income. If he does, he will lose his housing. This arrangement, and others of its kind, ensures that the poor remains poor.
African women, garbed in traditional clothing, sell roasted peanuts, bottled water, and homemade jewelry, among other items, on tables set on street corners in Harlem. An increasing number of immigrants from Africa, particularly West Africa, now call Harlem home. Their presence is reminiscent of that of African Americans who moved to Harlem, and other Northern cities, starting in the early 20th century, with hopes of escaping racism and other forms of discrimination prevalent in the American South. They found out that these factors existed, too, in the North. The unemployment rate among blacks was high. Rent parties were common in Harlem. Renters would host parties in their homes, in order to collect funds to pay the rent. Black women were seen as domestics and were offered cleaning and nanny jobs in white homes, with low pay.
It is true that race and class dynamics have changed since then. But the more they changed, the more they remained the same. The unemployment rate among blacks, not just in Harlem, but around the United States, is still high. And, as mentioned above, the housing market does not favor the poor.
So what can be done? Race and class can no longer be taboos in America. “Post-racial” or “New Black” talks do nothing to combat poverty in America, especially that faced by blacks and other people of color. In the same way that government actions have bailed out Wall St. and corporations deemed “two big to fail,” so too can the plight of the poor should be lifted. Otherwise, a vicious cycle will continue to exist, one in which the rich feast on the poor and the poor return the favor — seen in the action of the street vendor in attempting to pilfer money from the woman.
Photo credit: David Goehring/flickr