The problem of poverty in America is not due to a problem of labor but is rather is the direct result of racial disparity, according to Professor Peter Edelman. The intersection of poverty and race in America lies at the core of the poverty epidemic, the Georgetown Law Professor told the crowd at the Campaign for America’s Future Take Back America conference.
This culminated in the Hurricane Katrina disaster, where the neglect to rebuild New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, primarily inhabited by minorities, was a “race issue.” Though this may have been a Louisiana problem, Edelman proceeded to spread the blame nationwide. “America said ‘those people are black’.” The problem became an issue of racial, social, and economic justice.
Edelman presented his solutions to such racial issues of today. For instance, labor wages should be raised for everyone; this would benefit primarily the low-income minorities, but would be a “race-neutral” policy. “Structural racism” must be abolished, he argues. He complained that “we have a criminal justice system that locks up black people. They just do it.”
Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the Applied Research Center and publisher of ColorLines magazine, was present to discuss the role of racism in the aftermath of Katrina. Racism and the economy are interconnected, she argued, and people of color generally do worse than white people. There exists an actual racial hierarchy in America, exemplified by the banning of Affirmative Action practices in California, Washington, and Michigan. “In high-end restaurants,” she continued, “consumers want tall, attractive people in the front serving them, while the hard-workers are to be relegated to the back.” The “unwritten rule in the high-end restaurant industry,” she stated, is that the white people end up in the front of the building, while the “short brown people” slave away in the back. Racism, she said, must be re-defined as “being about the rules and structures, not about individual beliefs or behavior.” Racial disparities must be connected to their structural qualities.
Representative Maxine Waters from California spoke of a movement in America to reach out to the minorities and low-income workers. “I tell my white counterparts that they don’t represent the poor people.” The black caucuses, she argued, are the real voices of the poor. When speaking about the upcoming Presidential election, Waters summarized her views on the situation. “The Republicans are dead in the water. We have to put a [weight] on their neck and drown them.”
Minority Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama was introduced to a frenzied audience at the culmination of the morning events. “This man is black enough, I guarantee you,” the crowd was told.
There are 37 million Americans living a state of poverty today, according to Arlene Holt, member of a panel of speakers at the “Take Back America” conference for Progressives, although she did not say exactly where that number came from. “Greedy corporations” and “racial profiling” were attacked by the panels as conducive to the problems of widespread poverty and mistreatment of minorities in America. Government, according to many of the speeches, must be held responsible to clean up this cultural mess.
Highlighting the neglect of lower-class workers who do not receive paid sick days, author Ellen Bravo stated “low-wage workers are just low-paid, not low-skilled.” The role of government, asserted Bravo, author of Taking on the Big Boys, is to make the changes necessary to restore the balance between the upper economic classes and the workers with low incomes.
Alicia Rusell, head of ACORN in Arizona, proclaimed that American corporations are “working to drive up their wealth and drive down ours.” When she presented the problem of many poor families having their home-owning dreams shot down by foreclosures, she concluded with no other logical solution than to “raise hell” and “get mad.”
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut noted that there is a positive sign for this progressive economic advancement. “The Democrats have power now.”
In the presentation “Poverty and Politics: Katrina’s Clarion Call,” activist Arlene Holt added that the millions of present-day, low-income Americans are “likely to have a [minority] face.”
Better living conditions must be provided for immigrants within the United States, argued immigrants’ rights activist Chung-Wha Hong. Chung-Wha Hong was a member of a panel of speakers on the presentation entitled “The New Civil Rights: The Immigrant Struggle.”
The panel of speakers advocated that the “civil rights” of those who entered into the United States illegally are protected by the fundamental principles of American heritage. Angelica Salas, Director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, referred to a story of mistreatment of illegal immigrants in Georgia as an American outrage. The illegals were chased out of the rural town they resided in and took to the woods, hiding from authorities. Salas further emphasized that many of these illegal immigrants, beyond the borders of the southern U.S., live in such economic hardship that their only practical choice is to slip past the border patrol and the legal entanglement of U.S. immigration into the land of opportunity that awaits them.
(Never mind the countless numbers of destitute foreigners years ago who paid dearly to legally immigrate into the U.S., and who became U.S. citizens and learned the language.)
Chung-Wha Hong, director of the New York Immigration Coalition, spoke out against the sub-par living conditions and working opportunities of all immigrants in America. Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said that the conditions suffered by the foreigners in Georgia constituted “modern-day slavery,” though he did not mention that many of the slaves in America in the Civil War era did not choose to come to the U.S.
It is “unacceptable” that society is so negative about the immigrant communities in the U.S. today, proclaimed Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, Inc. He cited numerous negative editorials in area newspapers as examples of what he believes is unwarranted bashing of “American” residents by fellow countrymen.
The panel agreed that the conditions for all immigrants and the legal immigration process must be ameliorated by the current Immigration Reform bill in the Senate. No mention was made, however, of any cultural change to improve the cultural “mistreatment” of American immigrants.
This is not a new civil-rights movement, advocated Salas. “We were born from the original Civil-Rights Movement.”
Matt Hadro is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.