It has scarcely been 50 years since civil rights laws were enacted in this country that gave to us, at least on paper, a shot at the American dream. Suddenly, poor people and Black people were legally afforded an equal opportunity for education, for employment, for economic advancement, for social acceptance, and for a voice in our own government by way of the ballot box. It sounded great on paper, but laws on paper cannot change hearts. So it seems to me that from day one of the civil rights era, there have been those who have determinedly worked to undermine equal opportunity for us – to circumvent the law.
Some efforts have been subtle and some more blatant. These efforts gave rise to such things as “reverse discrimination” suits, and the gradual diminishing in the number and amount of grants and loans available for advanced education. We now find a concerted effort once again to block us from the ballot box by the imposition of requirements that will significantly hamper our ability to maintain a voice in our government.
I have long believed that there was a determined effort to maintain a permanent underclass in America, and all the current efforts of the Right are designed to achieve that goal. Further, I believe that the “powers that be” feel that underclass should be populated by Black folk. One of the primary ways to maintain the underclass is to bar its members from educational opportunities and real employment, because anyone who would take advantage of such opportunities might actually find himself or herself in a position of authority that those who find us unworthy would be loathe to acknowledge or respect – such as President of the United States.
Most of us have been appalled at the level of disrespect shown to President Obama by his right wing opposition. However, we have come to expect no better of them.
Last week however, the right-wing assault on poor people and Black people in America reached a new low in the voice of Republican Newt Gingrich, who is currently fighting for the nomination of his party to be their candidate for president. Mr. Gingrich had the audacity to declare that children of poor people have no role models who demonstrate a work ethic. According to him, the only work that poor inner city children know is that of illegal activity – presumably drug trafficking.
According to him they have no understanding of what it means to have a job that requires you to show up at 8 on Monday morning because no one in their community does that. His solution to the problem is that our children should be put to work cleaning the toilets in their schools. Of course, he would be generous enough to give them at least a token salary so that they learn the value of paid work. Finally, there it is! – The public acknowledgment that our place is scrubbing toilets.
Mr. Gingrich is wrong in so many ways that it is hard to count them. His assumption that poor people are too lazy to work only shows how little he knows. Statistics show that over 60 percent of poor people in this country are working poor – many of whom drag weary bodies from one part-time job to another hoping to earn just enough to keep a roof over their heads and some nourishment on their tables. Not all of these poor people are found in the inner city – although that seems to be Mr. Gingrich’s assumption. And, not all inner city poor are drug traffickers.
Although I find all of his wrong assumptions offensive, I am absolutely outraged at his suggestion that the way poor children should learn a work ethic is by scrubbing public school toilets. Why should our children not be afforded the opportunity to learn while working as laboratory assistants, apprentices to tradesmen or -women, office assistants, or even grocery store stackers and checkers? Our children are able to do great things, when given the opportunity. The idea that our children should only have the opportunity to build a work resume on the experience of toilet cleaning is both disgusting and repugnant. Yet, this is the world that Mr. Gingrich promises for our children if he is elected president.
It is my considered opinion that Mr. Gingrich should stick to talking about those things he knows. He knows about adultery; he knows about million-dollar jewelry accounts at Tiffany’s; and he knows about influence peddling in Washington DC. He knows nothing about the poor and their work habits.
We cannot allow people like Mr. Gingrich to turn back the hands of time in America to 1950. It is important that we strive with the energy and the faith of our foremothers and forefathers to prevent either Mr. Gingrich or any of his ilk from ever serving in any elected office because clearly he has no regard for the well-being and/or prosperity of us and our children in any way. Let us respond to his rhetoric with one voice, declaring in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around!
The Rev. Dr. Bertha Borum is pastor of St. John’s Transformation Baptist Church in Baltimore.